A hobo stands at the door, palm extended for a handout. Well, not a real hobo, but a life-size fiberglass one, and he slouches between you and the front door of Cupola Samarkanda II, a Uzbek restaurant under the F tracks on Brooklyn’s McDonald Avenue, in what might be Gravesend, or maybe Bensonhurst—even the locals aren’t certain. Later, after we sat down, the waiter instructed a Russian-speaking friend, “You’re supposed to put a quarter in the hand, for luck.”
In spite of not having pressed money into the derelict’s palm, my guests and I were very fortunate that evening, because we enjoyed some of the best Uzbek fare in the city. The food is cooked with a flamboyance one doesn’t find in the kosher Uzbek spots of Rego Park. In fact, Cupola has no detectable religious underpinnings—which, in Uzbekistan, would mean Jewish or Muslim. How can I tell? Well, because you can order a fatty pork shish kebab there ($3.50)—anathema to both religions—grilled over charcoal and as smoky as a fireman’s glove.
Among the 12 meats-on-a-stick offered, the only ones superior to the pork are the lamb ribs and the luyla kebab: a long tongue of ground lamb mixed with onions, so fragrant that diners fall upon it the minute it hits the table. The kebabs come with a carmine dipping sauce made with tomatoes and finely minced scallions and cilantro. At other restaurants, this sauce looks and tastes like ketchup, but here you’ll be drinking the excess out of the gravy boat once you’ve gobbled the kebabs. It’s that good.
Further Uzbek standards rendered with superior aplomb at Cupola Samarkanda—the name refers to the blue domes of a famous mosque in Samarkand—are fist-sized manti dumplings, bulging with lamb and spurting juices as you cut into them, five for $7.50; and two kinds of plov, a pilaf usually described as the national dish. The standard one features chunks of lamb, slivered carrots, and rice, but there’s also a rarely seen variation associated with Samarkand that’s mainly fresh herbs, rice, and ground mutton—making it a very strange shade of green. Note that plovs are sold in individual servings, rather than in heaping platters, so you can order one without committing yourself to an entire meal.
The vegetarian appetizers are also delightful, including achichuk ($6.50), which is mainly ripe tomatoes and sliced onions in light vinaigrette; and carrot salad, consisting of the shredded orange root slightly pickled and topped with crushed garlic. The most unexpected app is cim chee (pronounced “chim chee,” as if from a Mary Poppins song), which the badly translated English menu warns is a “spicy salad.” If you’re thinking, “Gee, that sounds a lot like kim chee,” you’re right—ever since the 1905 Russo-Japanese war, in which the island nation won and demanded that Russia resettle its entire Korean population, Uzbekistan has had a prominent Korean presence.
This expresses itself in an opaque ceviche of sea bass called “fish Korean style” ($6) in the section entitled Gold Appetizers, by which the menu means Cold Appetizers. The dish features hunks of fish in a thick red sauce with lots of heat—utterly delicious and unlike anything you’ve tasted before. Indeed, the Russian orientation of Cupola gives license for the menu to stray from Uzbekistan in several directions; one of them is toward Georgia, a country that lies to the west in the Caucasus Mountains. This is a good thing when it comes to geez beez (pronounced “jizz biz,” $12), a sauté of lamb liver dripping buttery juices cradled in a huge parabolic cracker called a toki, which resembles a mutant matzoh. It’s a bad thing when a pair of tiny quails are glazed in a pomegranate sauce so sweet that the birds are rendered inedible.
The place’s interior resembles the kind of glitzy Italian restaurant mobsters used to frequent, with thousands of tiny white lights strung up behind a small stage, a disco ball, and a color scheme that expresses itself in undulant waves of orange and purple paint. As a group of us sat late one evening, an old codger and a young girl took the stage and performed lugubrious Russian songs with a pre-taped accompaniment, as knives and forks clicked metallically in the background. Then, unexpectedly, the pair launched into Steve Miller’s “Abracadabra.” Nearly every man, woman, and child in the audience leapt up and began to shimmy convulsively.