My first thought about Rus-Uz, I’m afraid to say, was based on a Russia that has both revered the bottle and rued its deadly consequences: Where in the name of Boris Yeltsin is the vodka? Or the wine? Or even a good bottle of imperial stout? This Ballston restaurant dedicated to Russian and Uzbek cuisine has nary a drop to offer, the result of a liquor license still making its tortuous way through the application process.
But the more I talked to Ibrokhim Rakhmatullaev, who opened Rus-Uz last year with his chef father, Bakhtiyor, the more I understood that alcohol plays a complicated role in their home country of Uzbekistan, where nearly 90 percent of the population is Muslim. Sure, Uzbekistan was once part of the Soviet Union’s Cold War empire, but the Great Bear has been just one of many influences to shape a country that once sat at the crossroads of the Silk Road. On an Uzbek table, you’ll find rice, kebabs, samsas, dumplings, pasta, dolmas, borscht and lots of tea, a broad sampling of some of the world’s finest food and drink, from China to the Middle East.
Uzbek hospitality, in short, might include vodka, but it doesn’t robotically default to an indiscriminate pounding of shots until you see the ghost of Lenin.
Frankly, as I shared a plate of red caviar tarts, I was thankful not to be as blotto as Boris brandishing a baton in front of a military orchestra. I needed a clear mind to fully appreciate the art and craft of this appetizer, beginning with its elegant serving plate, painted with the traditional Uzbek white-and-cobalt-blue cotton flowers. The tiny tarts were equally arresting, each puff-pastry cup filled with cream cheese and topped with glistening pearls of salmon roe. Buttery flavors flowed into sour ones, which muted the fish eggs just enough so that their pungent, salty qualities were in the right balance.
You may have already figured out the obvious: Rus-Uz is an atypical choice for the $20 Diner, whose regular haunts often require a trip to the counter and a practiced hand to release the plastic cutlery from its cellophane cocoon. The tables at Rus-Uz are covered with white linens. The music leans toward the classical. And the glassware will not withstand the rigors of a child pounding it on the table, demanding more juice.
But the price is right at Rus-Uz, a fact that was reinforced when three friends and I ordered more food than any foursome should — a professional hazard — and the bill totaled a tad over $100. A far more standard appetite could easily escape Rus-Uz under the established budget ceiling and eat like a Russian czar before the Bolsheviks drew their firearms.
As the name implies, Rus-Uz freely mixes Russian and Uzbek dishes, a commingling that no doubt helps those unfamiliar with Uzbekistan cooking to ease into the experience. But even the familiar here can surprise you, such as the borscht, a maroon liquid that was more acidic than earthy, its vinegary preparation pairing well with the chunks of gamy lamb submerged in the soup. Likewise, the lamb samsa — think a baked puff-pastry turnover — resembled a samosa, but its buttery shell, minced lamb-and-onion filling and herbal notes were so much more refined than the starchy heat so often buried inside its fried cousin from India.