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.
Back in Uzbekistan, mutton is the meat of choice, a selection based not only on Muslim dietary restrictions but also on an animal common to Central Asia: the aptly named fat-tailed sheep, whose rich deposits of hindquarter fat serve as a primary cooking oil. But this being contemporary America, where mutton has all the currency of stove-top hats, the Rakhmatullaevs purchase halal lamb from Australia, which is incorporated into a number of dishes, from the yogurt-drizzled manti (dumpling wrappers so light they almost melted on the tongue) to the qovurma lagmon (a heavy bell-pepper pasta dish that concealed little bursts of ginger) and the bone-in shank (a good garlicky hunk of meat).
If you know anything about Uzbekistan food, you know the country’s national dish is plov, a painstaking lamb-studded variation of Persian polow, the mother of all rice dishes. Bakhtiyor Rakhmatullaev, former chef at the Uzbekistan Embassy in Washington, spends three hours preparing his plov, which in my case resulted in lush, sweet-and-savory rice that better served the sometimes dry hunks of lamb than vice-versa.
The chef prepares almost everything in-house, save for some outsourced desserts such as the Russian cheesecake (a cottage-cheese version far lighter than some of those dense, cream-cheese gut bombs). His house-made blini were delicate, eggy pancakes wrapped around ground beef sweetened with soft onions. His pirozhki were the blini’s doppelganger: big fried buns hiding what looked like a seasoned ground-beef patty. Midway through my pirozhki, this former Cornhusker had a small epiphany. I realized pirozhki are the forebears of a baked dish common in Nebraska, the stuffed log known as a runza. I might have had my own Anton Ego moment had the pirozhki not been sweating grease.
Yes, Rus-Uz is good, but it’s not perfect. Bakhtiyor Rakhmatullaev’s takes on chicken Kiev and beef stroganoff had both their pleasures and their flaws; the stroganoff, for instance, boasted a creamy sauce with more depth of flavor than many, but it coated strips of tough, leathery beef. Is it just coincidence that an Uzbek kitchen missed the mark, ever so slightly, with dishes that originate from Russia? Or am I just overthinking the whole situation, the result of a brain in desperate need of a few shots of vodka?