Marco and Me


In search of an Israeli place that had vanished into the thick autumn air, we spied an unfamiliar Forest Hills commercial strip—a procession of Russian dried-fruit shops, take-out delis, and dry-goods establishments dwarfed by high-rise apartment buildings. On the northern verge stood Salut, a kosher café offering food from Uzbekistan, where the cities of Bukhara, Samarkand, and Tashkent harbored communities of Jewish silk traders for a millennium. Harsh fluorescent light flooded the street from a dining room baited with the requisite chandelier and big-screen TV, on which a Soviet Michael Jackson clone in a Thriller costume cavorted on a pulsating stage. But what drew us inside was the unmistakable perfume of meat grilling on real charcoal.

Greeted warmly in English, we ordered from an inexpensive menu of soups, salads, kebabs, and sauces that reflected influences from Persia to China. Soon a plate smeared with babaganoush ($2.50) appeared, a strong odor of garlic and grilled eggplant wafting upward. Richly underscored with toasted sesame, it was one of the best babas I’d ever eaten, served with wedges of warm bread hacked from a turban-shaped loaf.

Next came the soups ($2.99). While shurpa—a thin broth of carrots, potatoes, and chickpeas—disappointed, the lagman was mind-blowing. The bowl was so heaped with cubed vegetables and lamb that no liquid was visible—a soup that could stand alone. On top perched a wad of cilantro and mint that eventually descended into the tomato-tinged broth, while underneath lurked noodles more udon than spaghetti, no doubt related to those Samarkanders prepared for Marco Polo in 1272.

As you might expect from a Silk Road café, salads were rife with international references. Armenian pickled cabbage ($1.99), thick slabs of a purple head soaked in strong vinegar, left a violet puddle on the plate. Korean carrot ($3) had a wonderful tart edge—shreds flecked with garlic and cayenne that reflected the chandelier’s light. It disappeared in a flash, leaving us to wonder yet again if this oft-seen dish is named after the nation or the local vegetable stand.

Part restaurant, part Asian tearoom, Salut also offers an assortment of filling snacks, taken with tiny cups of green tea poured from a Chinese pot. Uzbek mantu (described as “sluffed dough”) is a hump of oniony ground lamb with a hint of cinnamon in a slippery wonton wrapper, while Crimean cheburekes ($1.25) are expansive half-moon pies with an oily meat filling that oozes through the pastry, reminiscent of Brighton Beach piroshki. As one expects from a Russian restaurant, platters of jellied meat and smoked fish are also available.

As for the shish kebabs, the “chicken with bone” rocked hardest, the crisp skin intact around smoky flesh, the bone adding flavor. Khorovak, amorphous morsels of sweetbreads, were nearly as good. Mostly bargain-priced at $2.25 or less, kebabs also included too-fatty lamb ribs and the mysteriously named “beef (special cuts),” which were flavorful but tough. More expensive was lamb chalokhoch ($3.50), an oddly configured chop that the cook had struggled to get on the skewer—a gold mine for bone-gnawers. Our multicourse pig-out for three came to about $40 including glasses of ghastly kosher wine, but you could dine
spectacularly for under $8 with lagman, babaganoush, and a single kebab. And, while it took Mr. Polo three years to traverse the Silk Road, you can get there, eat dinner, and return home in less than three hours.