Do Gulziba Ekber a favor. Don’t refer to the new restaurant she manages as Chinese. While her people come from Xinjiang in northwestern China, they speak their own language (Turkic) and, being Muslim, follow their own customs.
“Our food is more Middle Eastern,” says Ekber, whose father, Ekber Keyser, is the chef-owner at the establishment, Dolan Uyghur (doh-LAN WEE-ger), named in part after the historically “brave, hard-working people” of Xinjiang. The air inside the two-floor dining room in Cleveland Park supports her testimony. Cumin, chilies and charred meat greet your nose.
Do yourself a good turn. Take a seat at Dolan Uyghur. With the guidance of a husband-and-wife coaching team from the same part of the world, the owner is offering Washington an uncommon taste of Uyghur cuisine, a style of cooking informed by the borders Xinjiang shares with Afghanistan, India, Mongolia, Russia and other countries.
Expect dumplings, in other words. And meat kebabs and portions that sneer at diets.
There’s no escaping dough, and that’s a good thing. The noodles, pulled by hand from a white ball, will give you a new appreciation for the possibilities of flour, water and salt.
See for yourself, and ask for a dish called Mom’s Lagman. What follows are long and tensile noodles, thick as bucatini, tossed with smoky squiggles of beef and red and green pepper strips that have been stir-fried to keep their bite. Lo mein, meet your competition: The dish eats like a charm, thanks mostly to elastic noodles that need no sauce to improve them but nevertheless benefit from the rest of the mix, including a sprinkle of sesame seeds. There’s also a fried version of the dish, sui rou lagman, whose noodles are slightly firmer, if not truly crisp. “Mom’s” plays on the fact every Uyghur home has its own way of making lagman, says Gulziba Ekber, and whatever version your mom makes is the preferred one.
Noodles are also the prize beneath some tender chicken in a stew billed as da pan ji. Wide like Italian pappardelle, the ribbons soak up the goodness of everything in the shallow bowl, nip of heat included.
Dumplings are coaxed from the same dough. Kawa manta come seven crimped buns to a plate. Inside the steamed purses are ground beef, onion and bits of soft pumpkin. A dusting of pepper kick-starts the party.
Among the soups that left me eager to eat here with a spoon again is chuchure, a big bowl of clear broth, hinting of beef and strewn with cilantro, with delicate tortellini bobbing on it. The soft white orbs contain ground beef and onion. Playing up the cuisine’s Silk Road connection in another bowl are lentils transformed into a thin puree and finished with dried mint.
That lentil soup is part of one of the best combination packages around, a $16 spread featuring the pilaf called polo. Make that rice shaped into an oiled dome with carrots and onions and flanked with a forgettable salad and a fine beef kebab.
The kebabs at Dolan Uyghur involve smaller pieces of meat, usually shaved, preferably lamb, than what you might see at your usual Lebanese or Persian standby. But they are no less pleasing, pulsing with cumin and juicy from a brush with onion sauce.
Like greyhounds out of the gate, the food at Dolan Uyghur races to the table. Order a few dishes at a time, then, to prevent your entire meal from showing up in minutes. The staff is good about pushing tables together to accommodate orders, but the word about this restaurant is out, and not every night finds spare tables.
Some real estate should be devoted to goshnan, the Uyghur equivalent of a pizza. The size of a vinyl record (they’re coming back!), the crust is basically pan-fried pastry stuffed with ground beef, red peppers and sweet onions. Imagine Hamburger Helper in a crisp golden sleeve.
Ekber Keyser, 42, last cooked at a chain Chinese restaurant, City Wok at Washington Dulles International Airport. His mentors, Ainiwaer Abuduwayiti and Tunisha Amuti, bring richer résumés to Dolan Uyghur, where the couple train the kitchen staff in the ways of noodle pulling and meat grilling. Natives of Xinjiang, they have both worked as executive chefs in Turkey, where they incorporated Uyghur dishes into the menus of their employers.
Every visit produces a fresh favorite. “Magic” Chili Chicken, available only on weekends, is my most recent obsession: succulent broiled chicken, hacked to pieces and served with red chilies beneath a green carpet of chopped scallions. The heat of the feast numbs the lips, but the fire isn’t so intense you can’t forge on. Priced at $25, the strapping platter could feed a small family.
That old black magic isn’t everywhere on the long menu. Fried spring rolls look like cigars on steroids, but each bite oozes as much hot oil as shredded cabbage. Sweet and sour fish turns out to be lightly battered tilapia in a sauce that’s missing signs of the tag team. (Battered dishes are not the kitchen’s forte. Too often, the food leaves the fryer tasting like nothing more special than a spongy version of itself.) Pale, steamed broccoli, on the other hand, benefits from a light wash of garlic sauce that doesn’t hold back on the stinking rose.
Desserts will surprise those who think Asian desserts are the least interesting part of a meal. “We baked this today,” says a proud server as she introduces a wedge of Kat-Kat cake. Eyes pop. A single slice is the size of a brick. Tender as pound cake, the multiple pale-yellow levels sandwich a filling of sugar and milk. Just as generous is a dagger of the rustic walnut cake. Fried, honey-glazed walnuts are so good, we order extra for the Uber home.
Dolan Uyghur should be pouring beer and wine by now. If not, a pot of steaming Uyghur tea helps chase back this robust food.
Amenities are few, limited to a painting of musicians on a wall here and some pillows plumping a window banquette there. A wrought-iron railing near the entrance leads to a similarly plain, yolk-yellow room upstairs, where diners near the fancy fencing can watch the comings and goings below. (The moment it opened in the former Sorriso space last month, the restaurant became the best place for takeout in the neighborhood.)
Xinjiang translates from Chinese to “new frontier.” Dolan Uyghur encourages diners to hit the road — and open wide.
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3518 Connecticut Ave. NW.
Open: Lunch and dinner daily.
Prices: Dinner appetizers $2.50 to $12, main courses $8 to $28.
65 decibels / Conversation is easy.