Let’s face it: The city’s Uzbek restaurants are often a pain in the ass. They’re invariably banquet-oriented. That makes getting a reservation for your small party difficult, and it also means, if you try just walking in, you might find the dining room jammed with noisy special-occasion celebrants seated 30 to a table and already tipsy from the vodka bottles that are the center of attention. Serving banquets sometimes also generates a depraved indifference to the quality of the food on the part of the management: Groaning tables of fish, pickles, salads, and potted meats can be set out hours before, and, if you manage to score a table, your apps might be no fresher.
Not so at Nargis Cafe, where the vittles are unstintingly fresh, and parties of two to four are welcome. The five-year-old restaurants sits on a strip of Coney Island Avenue in Homecrest thronged with Russian and other former-Soviet places, including the hulking Rasputin two blocks down and a new joint across the street called Back to USSR. A red neon sign at USSR substitutes a turkey drumstick and curving sausage for the old hammer and sickle. That sign illuminates Nargis’s sidewalk seating area, which is probably Coney Island Avenue’s only real outdoor café. Inside, two parallel dining rooms have wainscoted walls hung with Persian rugs; lighting is provided by pierced-metal sconces that shoot rays across the room. Couples are sometimes seen embracing in the dark recesses.
One usually goes to a Uzbek joint for the charcoal-grilled kebabs at bargain prices. But most offer loads of salads as well, handily helping balance your diet. Same applies to Nargis. Salad Tashkent ($7.25)—named after Uzbekistan’s Silk Road capital—is a rich tangle of shredded radish, scallions, boiled eggs, and lamb in a thick mayonnaise, unexpectedly delicious. For something less meaty, try “scallions, cucumber, radish, and herb salad” ($5.75), a lighter take on a similar idea coated instead with suzma, a sour-milk dressing. This being a post-Soviet restaurant, there’s the inevitable pickle plate, here somewhat less diverse than usual. Or you could appetize in a non-Uzbek way with pickled herring and potatoes.
There are Korean imports on the menu, too. Why? When the Japanese won a war against the Russians a century ago, they sent a majority of the Korean population in the contested territories to Uzbekistan as part of the peace treaty. Accordingly, you can get a fair approximation of kimchi ($4.75) at Nargis and also markovcha, a carrot slaw containing so much raw garlic, you might order another plate. These dishes need to be matched with the mellower dumplings, which include fist-size steamed manti stuffed with lamb and onions. There’s a fried version, too, crisp on one side and ultimately superior. One of the best apps is samsa ($2.25 each), big flaky empanadas bulging with a sweetish mixture of pumpkin and potatoes.
This being a nominally Jewish place (a picture of the legendary Lubavitcher rebbe is discreetly displayed, even though the restaurant is open Friday evenings), there are great Middle Eastern bread dips, including hummus and bojon (a roasted eggplant puree). You might want to avoid the baba ghanoush because it’s made with mayo instead of tahini. The oddest app, though, is khonim ($5.75), a steamed, free-form lasagna layered with potatoes and onions and topped with splats of tomato sauce. It arrives cryptically in a Chinese bamboo steamer.
And the kebabs? They are superb and way smoky. (A bag of Argentine lump charcoal is proudly displayed at the kitchen door.) In order of preference: The lamb rib is hyper-fatty, which gives it a strong flavor of burning wood; the lulya kebab is composed of onion-laced lamb and is the most flavorful; the chicken has been yogurt-tenderized and is much better than you’d imagine. In the same menu section, find a crisp-skinned baby chicken ($10.95) that comes heaped with green salad and a choice of french fries or rice, making a nice complete meal for two. There’s also a whole trout ($15.95) of mutant size, sautéed rather than grilled, crackling and succulent with a vegetable mélange underneath.
One word about the red wines: Don’t. Many bottles—though bargain priced at $20 or so—come from Georgia (no, not the Peach State), where the meaning of “dry” is a mystery. Khvanchkara is probably the most famous, assembled from Alexandria and Mudzhuretuli grapes and sweet enough to take the enamel off your teeth. A historic reason you might want to try a bottle, though: It was notoriously Joe Stalin’s favorite wine.
For more food coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road, at voicefoodblog.com. Follow us on Twitter @ForkintheRoadVV.