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Floor-to-ceiling murals of swaying palms and sandy beaches make you think Brighton Beach has its first Jamaican joint, while the name evokes those Peruvian places with somersaulting chickens in the window. Unexpectedly, the food at Chio Pio comes from Uzbekistan. The Central Asian republic, with its glittering and minareted trading centers of Bukhara, Samarkand, and Tashkent, is the Times Square of the Silk Road. But while most local Uzbeki places offer a Bukharan or Samarkander take on the chow, Chio Pio has a Tashkent bent. “It’s the most beautiful city in the world,” blurted out our friendly hostess soon after we sat down.
Just try to find Tashkent salad ($3.99) anywhere else. The glass boat holds a delicious pound of it, a tender julienne of lamb tossed with crunchy shredded daikon in a light and vinegary mayo. Chopped scallions round out the picture. Other dishes demonstrate the same easy fusion of East and West, so much less forced than the self-congratulatory mingling favored by Manhattan chefs. Some of the bounty of brined vegetables called pickle plate ($4.99) smack of Eastern Europe, including half-sour kirbies that might have come from Gus the Pickle Man, while others are distinctly Asian, like the red-pepper-flecked napa cabbage that’s a dead ringer for Korean kimchee. I wondered why, until I discovered that Korean restaurants provide Tashkent’s favorite night out. It’s interesting to speculate that the Koreans, who have been in the region since Russia lost the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, are responsible for the chiles at Chio Pio, rather than the Indians or Portuguese.
If you savor Indian samosas, you won’t recognize samsa—same Hindi root, strikingly different snack. These isosceles pies ($1.99) are big enough to make a modest meal, and carpeted with so many poppy seeds you should skip them if you’re taking a drug test soon. Inside are gnarly knuckles of moist lamb that, for a change, really taste like lamb. The same filling bulges the walls of manti ($5.99 for four), the classic Silk Road dumpling that suggests a ham-fisted adaptation of delicate Chinese wontons. Resist the temptation to throw them at the palm trees like snowballs.
This being an Uzbeki place, kebabs have star billing—individually at $1.99, or ganged up in proportionally priced assortments like “Uzbekistan” (all lamb) and “Tashkent” (pork, chicken, beef, and, best of all, the ground-lamb lyulya kebab). The soups ($3.99) include the usual shurpa, kharcho, and lagman, all based on a tomato-tinged bouillon rife with carrots, potatoes, green onions, and fresh dill. Shurpa is distinguished by its strong cumin flavor, kharcho is sweetened with bay leaf, and the fecund lagman conceals a wealth of pasta underneath.
Said to have been invented by Alexander the Great, the national dish, plov (“rice pilaf with beef”), is contrived by suspending the meat in a muslin bag, which corrals the scum as the broth cooks the carrots and rice. Chio Pio’s version is rib-sticking, but not particularly memorable. Instead, choose damlama ($6.99), a braise of baby lamb rib with winter vegetables seasoned with cumin, bay leaf, dill, and garlic, presented on a platter swimming in irresistible broth. It’s supremely wonderful, and available nowhere else in town. The catch is that you have to order it by phone two hours in advance. And you’d better speak Russian or Uzbeki.