Known as “The Gem of the East” and “The Land of Scientists,” Samarkand is the second-largest city in Uzbekistan and one of the most important trading centers on the Silk Road. It was founded in 500 B.C., about the same time as Rome, and when Spanish traveler Ruy Gonzales de Clavigo arrived there in 1400, he noted: “A traveler who approaches the city sees only a mountainous height of trees and the houses embowered among them remain invisible.” He also found among its well-tended gardens turquoise-domed mosques, tiled madrassas (Islamic academies), and elaborate mausolea, known as “streets of the dead,” among which huge caravans unloaded silks and spices.
By contrast, the restaurant Samarkand is a brightly lit box that shines on the access road of Queens Boulevard, a/k/a the Boulevard of Death. On a Sunday evening, SUVs idling outside disgorge patrons into the restaurant; inside, small tables are pushed together to accommodate extended families. The matriarch of the clan sits at the head, a looming presence in her dark formal dress and lace collar, her earnest sons arrayed around her in sport coats and pastel shirts with open collars, while her grandchildren disport themselves at the foot of the table in hip-hop attire.
The food reflects the diet of Samarkand’s Jewish population, who also arrived in Uzbekistan from Persia about the same time as the Spanish traveler, and soon set about trading gold and carpets and running Samarkand’s famous tea parlors. There, travelers and residents regaled themselves with giant steaming pots of green tea and such Persian finger foods as kebabs, picked vegetables, and bread dips. Though lacking a garden setting, the restaurant Samarkand replicates that menu six centuries later.
There’s no better start to your meal than the pickle plate ($4)—a heaping combination of house-cured vegetables: snowy cauliflower (a surprise favorite), Kirby cukes split lengthwise, pungent green olives, mild sauerkraut, dill-stuffed baby eggplant, great hunks of cabbage tinged red with beet juice, and tomatoes rendered an eerie shade of pink by the chemical action of strong vinegar. The selection varies day by day.
Also worth ordering is the shredded carrot salad ($4.50), tinted a surreal shade of orange with its traditional dressing—unfiltered safflower oil—made pungent with smooshed garlic and cayenne pepper. Cayenne pepper is a strange thing to find on the Silk Road, where the cooking is savory and salty but almost never spicy. The explanation is too long to include here, but suffice it to say that Koreans arrived in Uzbekistan after the Russo-Japanese War of 1908 and have been an important presence ever since. Have you ever known Koreans to go anywhere without their hot peppers?
Don’t even think about dining at Samarkand without ordering bread, which comes in two forms. One is a thicker and toastier cousin of matzoh, a huge parabolic cracker called toki, which is often delivered warm. The other is lepeshka, a loaf shaped like a round hemorrhoid cushion with a depression in the middle that, in Uzbekistan at least, is stamped with the symbol of the baker. To go with the bread, get the herb-dusted and oil-sluiced hummus rather than the baba ganoush, which tastes too much of mayo.
The national dish of Uzbekistan, plov, a lamb-heaped rice pilaf cooked using a special method involving a muslin bag, isn’t really an option here, unless you’re willing to assemble a table of eight or so diners, call ahead, and pay a minimum price of $120. Instead, go for the wonderful charcoal-grilled kebabs ($2 to $3.50 each). Calves’ liver was a surprise favorite, offered still on its stainless-steel skewer and elegantly heaped with raw purple onions and chopped scallions for a double-allium punch. A little ring of lamb fat separates the cubes, which are delicate and done to a warm pink in the middle. The fat makes the liver taste faintly like bacon. The second-best is lamb rib, a little less fatty here than elsewhere, and third, fourth, and fifth are chicken wing, lamb chunk, and lulya, respectively, the latter made of onion-laced ground meat and very juicy. You might want to skip the french fries ($3.50), which lack the heaping of crushed garlic found in many Uzbeki spots. Nevertheless, they’re better than the fries at, say, the Sizzler.
Green tea is the beverage of choice, sold in flowered ceramic teapots and served in shallow cups with no handles—reminding you that China lies at the other end of the Silk Road.