On a cold and rain-slicked night in Feasterville, we drove up and down Bustleton Pike looking for the restaurant's address and its whiff of kebab adventure. The strip malls were becoming a blur as Northeast Philadelphia morphed into Lower Bucks. In the cluster of storefronts at 1135 Bustleton, I saw a hair salon, a clothing shop, a pharmacy, and a medical supplier. Just behind stood a truly giant Giant Food Store.
So where was Samarkand?
That innocuous, smoked-glass door with a lonely blinking "Open" sign? The one set into the rear basement of that strip mall in the service alley across from the supermarket? Could this possibly be the region's best new Uzbeki restaurant?
I cracked the door open, and a blue light filled my eyes, followed by the pulse of live music and a wash of warm air scented deeply with lamb. Like some unexpected portal into a deceptively larger world, the space opened up into a long hall of neon-lighted rooms, whose brick-alcoved walls and mirrored ceilings vibrated with a live band, and long, white-linen banquet tables lined with families boisterously toasting with glasses of Cognac and passing platters of charcoal-roasted skewers stacked beneath lacy-white heaps of shredded onions.
"Do not write that this is a Russian restaurant!" owner Ozod "Ozzy" Soliev implored me over the phone. "We serve Uzbeki food here."
Indeed, the culture, language, and lamb-centric cuisine of this Central Asian republic is distinct from Russia's, and has grown even more so since the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991. That Samarkand may prove to be the best Uzbeki kitchen in the Philadelphia region, though, is not quite as obscure a distinction as one might think.
The fact that there are at least four such restaurants in Northeast Philly and the near-northern burbs, where immigrants from the former Soviet republics have settled, says a lot about the zesty allure of Uzbeki dumplings and pilafs ("palovs"), considering that community is predominantly Ukrainian and Russian.
For Soliev, 40, who was a pizza-delivery guy while learning English at Community College of Philadelphia, then eventually worked his way up to buy Drougie's Pizza on Cottman Avenue, this year-old restaurant is a tribute to his native roots.
"My cooks and I are from Samarkand - the oldest city in Uzbekistan," he said. The "karavot" platform table near the entrance evokes the setting of a typical home; the camel figurines there are a nod to the Uzbeki desert.
The service is friendly, but the bring-it-all-at-once pacing lacks the finesse Americans expect for à la carte meals.
The food, though, is what most sets the tone. The distinctive bread called "non," a sesame-speckled round baked in the restaurant's tandoor each day (and ideal with a pot of hot green tea) is the first authentic bite.
The soulful soups dusted with fistfuls of chopped dill are among the most memorable flavors here - especially the Laghman, a rich red broth of lamb, beef, and vegetable stew anchored by a tangle of hand-rolled yeast noodles. There were others, too, including the elegant Mastava, filled with rice and perfectly diced veal breast and root veggies; or the hearty bean soup that gets a savory jolt from morsels of deep-fried veal; or the namesake Samarkand soup steeped for hours with lamb breast and chickpeas.
No feast here is really complete without a preamble of appetizers, which are laid out in anticipation of the large parties that typically book their banquets for weekends. (Weekdays, by contrast, are extremely quiet.) If the various cold-cut platters aren't for you (handsome as it was, I couldn't get my guests to vote for the veal tongue), Samarkand does wonders with fresh vegetables. The "achik-chuchuk" is a stroke of simple produce-chemistry perfected, with plain sliced tomatoes and shaved Spanish onions dusted with just enough salt and cayenne for the flesh to begin breaking down, rendering the pairing juicy and mild. Pastushy, a Russian variation, adds colorful bell peppers and shaved Romano cheese. Eggplant gets its due in numerous ways, fried and tossed with zucchini in garlic oil for Vostochny or, my favorite, tossed in fresh garlic dressing for salad Registan.
Among other things, Uzbekistan is famed for its various dumplings. The steamed "meat pockets" (or "manti") are satisfyingly straightforward, the beggar's purses filled with coarsely minced lamb and onions, with little more than a side of house-made "sour milk" (a sour cream variation made with milk and yogurt) to use as sauce. My favorites, though, were the baked "samsa," sesame-dusted meat turnovers whose flaky dough is attributed to the use of lamb fat.
The lamb theme is ever-present (though older mutton is more likely the case in the old country), which is why I'd suggest also bringing a hearty red wine to accompany the tea and all the vodka and brandy that patrons tend to bring by the case. Even the warm grape leaves ("toki-dulma") are stuffed with dill- and cilantro-laced ground lamb and beef.
Lamb fat is the key to Samarkand's à la carte "palov," as well, lending gamy richness and keeping the grains of rice distinct in a pilaf threaded with buttery carrot laces and fork-tender hunks of lamb and beef.
There are other meat options in the must-order kebab department, including chicken morsels tenderized with orange juice and paprika, and ground beef "lula" kebabs with lots of onion. But lamb fat makes unexpected cameos there, too, as the secret savory gold that seasons the paper-thin sheets of butterflied hanger steak before they're wrapped and sliced into skewered pinwheels - like a carnivore's lollipop - for the rolled-beef kebab.
There's no sense in avoiding the lamb-fest, especially with some of the best lamb chops in Philly ("chalagach"), whose thick pads of meat are sublimely tender and crusted with seasoning. It's worth the $25 splurge, considering most entrées here top out at $15. Though for just $4.99, you can savor a more rustic nibble of true Uzbeki soul and gnaw on the meaty fat of lamb ribs. The chunks of boneless lamb leg, tenderized with a splash of seltzer, are also worthwhile.
All of these are available à la carte, but one day, I hope to muster a party of 10 or more to explore some of the many order-ahead dishes prepared as centerpieces for big groups, like the "specialty" palov ($200) filled with choice cuts of lamb, whole garlic heads, turnips, raisins, and sesame oil; or the norin ($80), homemade pasta sheets tossed with lamb and beef; the khanum ($90), steamed pastry rope stuffed with meat; the baked lamb breast barra kebab ($130); or the halisa, a labor-intensive stew of lamb, beef, and whole-grain wheat cooked down and stirred for 16 hours, a favorite for Ramadan fasting, or just for the oncoming November chill of a Feasterville winter.