All posts filed under “Central Asian

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41° Experience, Barcelona

41° Experience

There is so much brilliance I can recall about this meal, but I have decided not to put all into writing. Lazy blogger, no. Necessity, yes. The “elements of surprise” are crucial, according to FAQ. When it was first launched, 41° Experience (or 41 Grados) by El Bulli-famed Ferran and Albert Adria was meant to be just a cocktail bar for the annexed Tickets. But it has morphed.. into a 16-seat, tasting-menu-only restaurant, most recently alleged as one of the most difficult to get reservations in the world.

Briefly. There is no reservation line. The booking is made via their website and partially requires payment. There are some drinks included in the €200-per-head tasting menu. You can order a separate alcoholic pairing at €45. Blah. Blah. The venue is a decent-sized bar space, dimmed and dark. There were more FOHs than diners. Above me was a nebula of eclectic images – a kind of modern pop art featuring disparate cultural items around the world – being played in slow motion. And soothing trance-like music..

Not so briefly. The fun at 41° Experience kicked off with a stubbornly square, neatly crafted “41°” ice cube which chilled a smoky liquid substance. Along came a jar containing drops of green olive, preserved in oil. Just your typical jar of olive – but the molecularised EL BULLI style. The liquid olive essence was entrapped in a gelatinous skin. Fragile, it rolled for an escape on the tongue and burst into a taste of what would have been like if I stuffed my mouth with 10 olives in one go. I have never made enough effort to be at El Bulli and I am – or was – never convinced by molecular gastronomy. BUT. That was some alchemy that I highly recommend.

Through my first 3-4 courses, I departed from Barcelona – the 41° latitude as the name of the restaurant portends- wandered through Italy, France, Russia, Asia and many more. Ferran and Albert Adria not only know so much about cuisines but also cultures, wherein lies humourous anecdotes and stereotypes. All these are re-interpreted into all the 41 dishes served at 41° Experience. Some were more successful than others. Some got me to physically interact and/or contemplate intellectually; others made me LAUGH OUT LOUD. (Something about France, of course. And Rene Redzepi might be on the menu). That said, as the concept of the menu relies very heavily on the elements of surprise, of not knowing what comes next and which country where you will end up, it is best not to do so much telling (or display any sharp and clear images). The cooking was exquisite but a complement to the concept. SO.. if you are a global character, know a lot about cuisines and cultures, you will be having a very good time at 41° Experience. If you are averse to internationalism, there is a high risk that you might not get the “jokes”, which are the best part of the meal.

Life-changing? No. But this meal reversed my eagerness in life and I felt happy, giggly.. as if I became a child again :-D

 

(Sorry. Can’t help not telling you of my most favourite dish – a re-constructed Peruvian “causa”. A thick slice of super fresh and firm yellowtail/hamachi marinated in lime, chilli and garlic was served nigiri-style on a velvety ball of spiced-infused mashed potatoes. The dish paid homage to the Japanese influences in Peruvian culinary tradition and taste-wise it was a bomb of citric umami).

PS Don’t hate me for doing this >_<

 

 

RATING: 5/5

41° EXPERIENCE

Avinguda Paral-lel, 164
08015, Barcelona
Spain

www.41grados.es


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Wulumuchi: Lamb, Chicken & The Feast of Xinjiang (in Chinatown)

Xingjiang

Xinjiang Uyghur is (to my understanding) a culturally grey area of China. Situated in the North West, it was known in the old days as Chinese Turkestan, and given the region’s being bordered by Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Pakistan and India as much as by China, the influences from these non-Chinese regions have been as potent (or even more so) than from the epicentral Chinese culture. This reflects vividly in Xinjiang’s cooking tradition. Lamb, mutton and camel feature prominently. Meat is either braised or grilled on skewers (Kebab-style). There are “naan” bread, “plov/pilaf” rice and “lamian/lagman” hand-pulled noodle. Unlike what we now understand as Central Asian cuisine, Xinjiang cuisine relies on soy sauce and chilli oil in flavouring, hence more complex Chinese dimensions.

 

 

The feast like no other..

The menu at Wulumuchi is exciting in a way that it sets itself apart from other Cantonese-bordering-on-being-generic Chinese restaurants in London’s Chinatown. In other words, you won’t find a Sweet and Sour Pork there. Instead, you will come across a lot of lamb and chicken dishes, quite a few of which contain offal. (Shame they haven’t stretched to camel meat, which is delicious!). The starters are divided into cold dishes, dumplings and soups (£3 – £7.50); the mains – from stew, curry, stir-fry to flame grill – are priced between £9 and £25. Many dishes are clearly marked as Xinjiang specialties.

Lamb dumplings (£5) were boiled parcels of minced lamb. The filling was lamb-y and aromatic but lacked the typically vibrant Chinese ingredients (i.e. garlic, chive, etc.), thus likening the taste to two-dimensional Russian pelmini or Uzbek manti. The dipping sauce – made from an infusion of chilli, garlic and coriander in soy sauce – brought me back to China. Enjoyable, nonetheless. “Medium Chicken” (£16.50) billed as “most popular Xinjiang dish” was quite large. (I didn’t want to think how massive “Big Plate Chicken” would be). This was a braised dish of chicken thighs and drumsticks with bell peppers, onions, carrots and belt noodle. I found the chicken a little dry and not falling off the bones but loved a little punch in the sauce from fresh and rehydrated chilli, star anise and coriander. The belt noodle (around 1 inch wide and 2mm thick) was coarse-looking but quite addictive and delicious. Assorted Lamb Offal (£10.50) was a risky dish. Cooked together in a starchy sauce were slices of lamb tripe, kidneys, liver, hearts and intestines. All elements were expertly rinsed and did not ooze utterly foul smell. The seasoning came from bulbs of fresh chilli and garlic. Still, the whole thing was pretty pungent. (TOB skipped this). Garlic Chicken Wings (£9.50) were wrapped in lotus leaves and deep fried. The flavour was subtle – a hint of garlic mingling with nutty, bark-y aroma from the crispy leaves; the chicken was succulent and nicely cooked; the leafy wrap helped retain moisture in the meat. The only problem, though very minimal, was that the gelatin from the chicken skin broke down and glued the chicken to the leaves. That said, if you decide to eat the fried leaves – the waitress informed us as a customary practice – you won’t have to worry about removing them. Grilled Lamb Skewers (£9.80) arrived with salad (soy and rice vinegar dressing) and Xinjiang “naan” bread (with less elasticity than your typical Indian, in my opinion). The skewers of lamb slices dusted with chilli flake were pretty decent. (They did verge on being a chilli lamb kebab). To go with them were 4 kinds of sauces – plum, mint, yogurt and sweet vinegar-ed chilli – that tasted pretty trans-cultural. Last but not least was the most successful “plov/pilaf” rice (£ForgotThePrice). The rice, slow-cooked in intense lamb stock with star anise, garlic, diced carrots and potatoes. had a great depth of flavours. The texture was spot on, too, – puffy, soft and with a carefully measured oil content. Highly recommend this.

We had a discussion at the end of the meal that Xinjiang food tasted more Central Asian than Chinese. While Central Asian cuisine can be generally boring (due to lack of complex, big-flavoured seasoning), the exoticism that the Chinese ingredients bring makes Xinjiang cuisine, especially at Wulumuchi, thoroughly loveable. I am returning, without a doubt :)

 

RATING: 4/5

WULUMUCHI

16 Lisle Street
London
WC2H 7BE

Tel. 020 7287 6606

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Uzbekistan Restaurant, Moscow

Not very often that I was greeted on arrival at a restaurant by a squeamishly bellowing noise of what-I-hoped-an-animal-not-human-being. A chicken to be martyred for my culinary quest perhaps? A walk through a summer garden of this multi-terrain restaurant Uzbekistan by Arkady Novikov helped demystify the origin of the noise..

..no fat duck, no obese hen..

Just, JUST(!) a caged peacock strategically positioned next to the massive oven. I hoped it was not on the menu.

The menu here was mainly Uzbekistani but there were also Arabic and Chinese sections. This time I skipped the sub-nationality cuisines and focused on what the restaurant boast best, the cuisine of the Uzbeks!

What is Uzbekistani food like?

Good question.. I’d say it is not so much Russian but a bit more similar to Kazakhstani.

Didn’t help clarifying anything, did I?

Simple dishes. Quite light. No heavy sauce or creamy mayo. You can stereotype the cuisine evoking such dishes as Shashlik (grilled kebak-like specialties), Kazy (horse sausages) and Lagman (meat-filled dumplings). I wanted to have the horse sausage to compare with the version my other bib bought back home from Kazakhstan (photo here) but they ran out. Ended up with Roll “Uzbekistan” (1) and Red Caviar (2) to start. The roll was made of cold lamb. Layers of fat, meet and spiced nutty, offal-y mince. Strong lamb scent but not adequately spiced. Astoundingly lacking in salt. The red caviar – AKA salmon roe – arrived very feverishly orange as if Malaya garnet. It was, very interestingly, served with cold piped butter. I was instructed to “eat it together” and I managed to throw in some freshly baked bread in my mouth at the same time.

So..

Red caviar + butter = ACE!!

The mould of bread was benignly crusty, miraculously spongy and oozed unforgettably savoury sesame aroma. Also ace!!!

There was an intermediate soup course called Shurpa that my waiter insisted I had. It was a clear veggie broth – predominantly carroty – with chunks of lamb. Perfectly executed and so clear that I could see my own reflection in it. Sadly the taste was like a mild vegetable stock. No intensity from lamb. When I was about to lose interest, my waiter led a chef in my direction. He came with a pot of Pilaff so big it could fit in two plump peacocks. The rice had perfectly absorbed the oil in which it was cooked. Very shiny. The aroma of lamb perfumed my table as the chef stirred in and spooned me a portion. Fresh salad garnish on the side – tomatoes, onions, cucumber and utterly mellow roasted garlic bulbs!! The sight and the scent excited me. Without knowing, I did fall in love with the theatricality of the serving.

Back to the anti-theatricality of eating. The Pilaff was actually very tasty. The rice was perfectly cooked and oiled and very aromatically balanced. I spotted fennel seeds and cloves but there was more dimension to it. Mini carrot batons were also cooked just right. Tender cubes of lamb. The side salad worked to cleanse my greased tongue and injected acidity and onion heat. I couldn’t stop eating the dish. Period.

By the time I mopped up the plate I realised I had no room for desserts and therefore have to sum up my meal here. Uzbekistan is a bloody good restaurant. Relaxing surrounding in such a central location. Dishes were hearty, authentically well thought out and relatively nicely balanced. They captivated me. That said, Uzbekistani cuisine in general could taste too niche for many. Its undisguised simplicity can be tasted as lack of effort, whereas its subtlety was misread as underseasoned. Given this restaurant’s authenticity, there will be people who can relate to and fall in love with the dishes or who just don’t get it. I could see my other bib loving it and my mum damning it!

.. never mind. I could picture her enthralled by a caged peacock.

Enough said,

My head rating says, “7.5 out of 10″.

My heart rating says, “7 out of 10″.

UZBEKISTAN

Neglinnaya Ulitsa 29/14 / Неглинная ул., 29/14
Moscow 103051
Russia

Tel. +495 623 2469

www.uzbek-rest.ru

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This Is Kazakh…

Read this if all you really know about Kazakhstan and Central Asia can be summed up by the word “Borat”. I was never keen to explore the cuisine of this region until my other bib decided to go backpacking the region. I heard, through him via Lonely Planet, that the speciality of Kazakh cuisine was boiled sheep heads. And that the most esteemed guest would get to eat the eye balls?

That’s some custom…

When I went to this Central Asian restaurant-con-Irish-pub Cigansky Ray – this was a revamped restaurant, formerly called Dastarkhan, on the second floor of a local pub called Phibbers – down Liverpool Road, I bore that in mind. (Un)luckily, there was no sheep head or many of the dishes the menu promised to offer. Our lady waiter apologised for the lack of choices. Looking around, we were the only diners at the place and this shortage of dishes seemed a little less absurd. They’d probably feature the whole menu on their busy Saturday night where this place became alive with live music. Positive thinking, I could be as loud as I wanted. Nobody were there to glare at us!

The menu was a mixed bag of Russian and Central Asian dishes. My bib had visited the place years ago and said it used to be more Kazakh. Never mind Russian, Lituanian and Uzbeks, I gave it all a go. Started with a bowl of Borsch and Siliotka Pod Subai. The Borsch was very rich, unlike the aromatic version at Kyrgyz Kazakh House Restaurant, thanks to the superb beef stock well married with the sweet note of the beetroot. Vegetables were nicely cooked, too. Siliotka Pod Subai, translated as Fish Salad, was a very interesting dish. It wasn’t a salad per se but layers of many things. Look-wise, it appeared a slice of cake with grated cheese on top. Smell-wise, it was like beetroot, fish and egg. Taste-wise? This was the very intriguing part. This little gateau was made of beetroot, pickled herrings, beetroot infused mayo and grated boiled egg!! The last ingredient was a real genius. I was totally fooled. Varying degrees of creaminess, paired well with the sweetness and the mild pickled flavour from the beetroot and the fish respectively.

There was a massive time lapse before our main dishes arrived. Gulesas – my main I thoroughly enjoyed! – was a creamy pork stew dish served with rice and cucumber salad. Delectable flavour from the gravy. Quite onion-y sweet. I found it similar to Japanese cream stew. The pork cut into cubes was a few minutes too cooked but forgivable. My bib’s dish, Saslyk Baranina, is basically barbecued marinated lamb. I didn’t get to try but it looked rather appetising. As far as his comment went, the meat was well trimmed and tender. Not overpowering marinate.

There was a long gap and I decided to hop to get my waitress. Well, only to find her grazing on the food off the stove!!!!!! Sorry, melodrama aside, I realised that she was actually the house chef who served food also. Gosh, this must be hard. And minutes away I was picking on how slow the service was. Sorry, love! After some imaginary reconciliatory hugs, I asked for two portions of Chak Chak, which tasted home-made and fresh. A tweak on the recipe – say, adding some nuts – would make the dish brilliant.

The bill came to about £40. The food was hearty and would definitely remind you of home, providing you were from Central Asia. I enjoyed my evening and I would like to return perhaps on a busier night when my waitress-chef was cooking the whole menu and there were more than just two of us and the pub folk downstairs. Hope she’ll have somebody to help her out then! Before leaving, she was shouting to us “Большое спасибо” and we “very delicious”. Not sure if that was a conversation well understood?

Enough said,

My head rating says, “8 out of 10″.

My heart rating says, “7 out of 10″.

CIGANSKY RAY

2nd Flr Phibbers Pub
203 Holloway Road
London
N7 8DL

Tel. 078 3193 7788

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On The Road To Kyrgyz-Kazakh

You take a bus to Camberwell Road, to this little “boutique” hotel Pasha, and walk down this red-carpetted, dimly lit, narrow corridor. Keep walking and walking, past a Turskish bath, a steam room and sauna, a cosmetic laser surgery room – I am not kidding – a pool table and lots of photos of pretty Mongolian models framed on the walls. Then, you reach the dead end, no? Actually, there is a door, modest and unassuming, at the end of that corridor, with signs that say…

And that is it, the anti-climactic entrance to this Kyrgyz Kazakh House Restaurant. To me, this was, probably, the most random entrance I’d ever come across in the UK.

Opening that door was, surprisingly, more of an experience. My Other Bib had visited the place before and insisted I did the honour – of door-opening. He wanted to see the look on my face, really. And, ah! Bright light hit me in the face. The restaurant itself was a room – maybe two rooms joined together – but there was a sort of warmth to the place: nomade-style, semi-floor seating on one side of the restaurant and tables and chairs – nothing fancy – on the other. Between those two sides was a pond and a small wooden bridge with fish. Live ones ….

No comment on that. I took my seat.

The menu was intriguing as it was a conflation of many nationalities ranging from regular Turkish dishes, more marginal cuisine from Russia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyztan. I was there to samble Central Asian food; accordingly we opted for the ones with Russian imprints.

The bread came with a Houmous dip. Not the smoothest one I’d eaten but quite flavoursome. The bread, served cold, was sponge-like and did not have much flavour in itself.

First up were Russian Salad and Pickled Herrings. It couldn’t get any more traditional, could it? The Russian Salad, which was a bowl of many things – chopped eggs, diced potatoes, carrots, pickled gerkins – mixed with mayonaise, was decent enough. The flavours of the root veggies, pickles and eggs came through nicely. It wasn’t special, of course, but decent. The Pickled Herrings dish was a bit more special. Served with boiled potato slices and pickles, the slices of herrings were meaty and of good quality. There was not much sourness going on there, considering it was a pickled dish. We deliberated and thought the one at Goodman tasted better. Still, we mopped all the bits and pieces on the plate down very quickly. We also ordered grilled Halloumi cheese, which was good. Not very Russiian, were we?

Then we had this intermittent bowl of Borsch, a Russian beetroot soup with sour cream. The version at Kyrgyz Kazakh was actually very nice. Aromatic with celery, beetroot, carrot, potatoes, lettuce and beef stewed together with a touch of rosemary and dill. The bowl itself was massive and the amount of ingredients that had gone into it could actually make this a meal in itself.

As far the main – perhaps I should mention that one main costs about £7-8 and they are massive! – we got Besh Barmak and Oromo. The Besh Barmak was, according to the menu, traditional hand made dough topped with beef and onions cooked in broth. That “dough” thing was half way between flat pasta – tagliatelle came to my mind here but less eggy – and Chinese noodle. It was well made and well cooked – soft but retaining some bite – and slithered down my throat very nicely. The topping of beef and onion cooked in broth was direct. The beef flaked nicely on the tongue. However, the dish fell into a trap of being two dimensional with flavours being dominated by the natural sweetness of the onions. I didn’t know what the chef could do to improve the dish, though, and in the end, it was down to the gastronomic tradition of nomadic cooking – the convenience-came-first sort of thing – that would never be as rich and as advanced as, say, Italian or French or Thai or Indian or Chinese or, well, many others. The other main Oromo was less thrilling. It was a roll – made from the same pasta-like dough – of minced meat steamed and served with sour cream and spicy chilli relish. The roll itself was rather bland. I could taste meat, salt and pasta. Not bad, but not to my liking. Personally, I much prefered the Besh Barmak because it had more of contrasting texture going on. The Oromo, look-wise and taste-wise, was more like a snack dish and not very far off from being a rustic Cheng Fun dish.

Last but not least, we had the dessert, the only Kazakh sweet on the menu, called Chak Chak. How could I describe it? Say, fried noodle-like dough, raisin and nuts glued together by a dullop of honey and ground cinnamon and then cut into chunks. It was sweet, crunchy and fragrant. They did achieve the right balance for this one, I must say. The Chak Chak I came across in previous occasions – many were Chinese or Korean variations – were just disgustingly honeyed or soggy.

Overall, this was one decent meal and quite a gastro-experience. Price-wise, it was brilliant and I was told if we came at the weekends for dinner, there’d be live musicians and belly dancers. Looking back to the meal, the Kyrgyz Kazakh food was quite a merging of two cooking traditions: Russian and Chinese, but lacking depth and the wow factor. That said, I quite enjoyed my experience and might try to dig out more of these places wherever, though I didn’t think I’d come across another one with a pond – with fish and a turtle – in the middle of the dining room!!

Enough said,

My head rating says, “7 out of 10″.

My heart rating says, “7 out of 10″.

KYRGYZ KAZAKH HOUSE RESTAURANT

Pasha Hotel
158 Camberwell Road
London
SE5 0EE

Tel. 020 7277 2228

www.pashahotellondon.co.uk

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