Ya Lyublyu Chayhana Salom! Uzbek Food in Sheepshead Bay
1652 Sheepshead Bay Rd (between Jerome and Voorhies Aves; map); 718-332-2200; chayhana-salom.com
Setting: Deceptively small storefront that opens into a bright, cheery dining room
Service: Friendly and a bit frazzled, with a small language barrier
Compare To: Cafe Kashkar, Cafe at Your Mother-In-Law
Must-Haves: Chuchvara soup, lamb kebabs, fried lagman
Cost: $2-4 for smaller bread items and kebabs, $7-12 for rice and mains
Recommendation: Not a bastion of fine dining, but definitely worth the trip for cheap, well-executed takes on stick-to-your-ribs central Asian comfort food.
There aren't many Uyghur restaurants in this city, so I was intrigued when I heard about a new spot that was supposedly "a hundred times better" than Café Kashkar, my Brighton Beach Uyghur benchmark. As it turns out, this new Sheepshead Bay competition, Chayhana Salom, isn't really competition at all—it's an Uzbek restaurant with a small handful of Uyghur dishes on the menu, which makes sense given that there's a large diaspora of Uyghurs in Uzbekistan.
Got that? Good—now stop worrying about what dish belongs where, because part of the pleasure of a meal at Chayhana Salom ("Restaurant Hello") involves surrendering your preconceived notions about how a meal should behave. Think the tiny storefront looks like a dive? Your food is served on gilded plates in a baroque faux-antique style. Order green tea, as is traditional? You'll sip it from one of those anointed bowls, not a cup. Order a coursed meal complete with salad, soup, hot and cold appetizers, and a main course? Doesn't matter—the food comes when it's ready, which in most cases is quite fast, unless you request the Organic Fried Cornish Hen 'Ugolok' Stye ($13.95), which takes 40 minutes to prepare.
The food at Chayhana Salom is not designed to push the limits of culinary creativity —this is stick-to-your-ribs mama food, overseen by a friendly Uzbek matriarch named Farida Ganieva, who emigrated to New York a decade ago and cooked her way around a series of Brighton Beach restaurants before opening Chayhana last year. Carbohydrates—in bread, pastry, dumpling, and rice form—feature prominently, plus various incarnations of carbs filled with lamb, but a meal at Chayhana needn't be a total eclipse of the gut.
Start with the Chuchvara Soup ($6.50), a clear broth filled with tiny, slippery lamb chuchvara (Uzbek tortellini), with thin, delicate wrappers. The soup is rich and salty—so salty, in fact, that it's served with a small saucer of thin sour cream to help mellow its edges. Its richness dovetails neatly with the slight funk of the lamb filling in the dumplings. From there, follow the waiter's advice and order the seemingly out-of-place Greek Salad ($7.50), which would be unremarkable save for the mountainous pile of fresh, tangy crumbled feta it's buried under.
If greens aren't your thing, try the served-cold Ali-Baba Salad ($7), a deeply flavorful tangle of sautéed eggplant, tomatoes, bell peppers, and raw red onions, with plenty of garlic and oil, instead. Either (or both) are good palate-cleansers for the onslaught of small bread-based items poised to arrive.
The most ubiquitous is Patyr (sometimes called "non"), a dense traditional bread baked in a circle with a ruffled edge and a stamp of poppy seeds on top. To be honest, I'm not sure if we ordered the patyr separately or if it simply arrived; the latter wouldn't be a surprise, in keeping with the restaurant's family-style mentality. Make sure you flag down the friendly, if slightly frazzled waiters for an order, because it's an ideal vehicle for scooping sauce and snacking on intermittently.
I know we ordered Parmuda ($3), a savory baked pastry filled with chopped lamb and sautéed onions (sometimes referred to as "parmuda samsa," the catch-all word for stuffed roll and/or bun things). Brushed with an egg wash and sprinkled with sesame seeds, the burnished parmuda are lovely things to behold. The filling gets a little lost, but when the pastry is so supple and tender, it's hard to complain. A similar ground lamb and onion filling is better showcased in the Varaka ($2), thin pockets of pastry deep-fried to a golden, bubbly crisp, like a sort of central Asian empanada. A lighter option is the vegetable Kutabi ($2), thin tortilla-esque pastry wrappers filled with tender cooked greens.
There are more starchy options in the "Main Dishes" section, including Khamir Khasip ($6), an attractive-looking but disappointingly bland dish of doughy dumplings stuffed with noodles and tiny bits of meat, topped with an overly sweet tomato sauce. Skip the similarly-designed Khanum ($6) while you're at it, too—the rice-and-meat filled dough rolls are both boring and under-seasoned, an unfortunate combination that could help explain why Uzbeki cuisine never really took off in elite culinary circles.
It's good to have some starch to skip over, because you'll want to save room for the lagman noodles, offered in two forms: a deconstructed Uyghur style ($9), which sees boiled noodles and their accompanying lamb and vegetable stew served separately; or fried ($7.50), in which noodles, lamb, peppers, and onions are stir-fried in a rich tomatoey sauce and topped with strips of scrambled egg. The stew in the Uyghur style is hearty and rich, and there's fun in assembling your own personal bowl of noodle soup, but it's hard to top the oily, salty, piquant pleasure of the fried version.
And then of course, there are the kebabs, an abrupt departure from breadville. Served on menacing double-edged skewers, the meats at Chayhana Salom are serious business. In keeping with the theme of the night, we stuck exclusively to lamb options, including muscle meat ($4), liver ($3), and lulya, oblong patties of ground lamb ($3) (other choices include ribs, beef, chicken, and...salmon). The lulya was the big hit of the night, strongly seasoned with cumin and juicy throughout. The liver had a pleasant char and tender inner texture, without the offal-y flavor that can distract in lesser livers. Whatever you do, keep portion size in mind: each kebab is enough for two, assuming you've been picking at your patyr.
Plov is a national passion in Uzbekistan, and the Tashkent-style version ($8) at Chayhana is a worthy offering of long-simmered yellow rice studded with plump golden raisins, garbanzo beans, carrots, lamb chunks, and a hard-boiled quail egg on top. It's colorful and comforting; though Ganieva encouraged us to call ahead for her signature banquet-style "Chayhana"-style brown rice and garlic plov, traditionally served for special occasions. "Get married here!" she urged. "We'll make plov!"
Of the mains, that 40-minute Organic Fried Cornish Hen "Ugolok" Style (at $13.95, the most expensive thing on the menu) was the biggest disappointment—the spatchcocked, pan-fried bird arrives with a handsome golden crust, only to give way to dry meat within. The "special red sauce" served on the side resembled a cold, watery salsa. As far as proteins go, stick with lamb—there's a reason it appears in nearly every dish.
Desserts (all $4) are limited to Chak-Chak, deep-fried dough balls coated in honey, which the restaurant was sadly out of when we went; a dry and crumbly Medovik (layered honey cake), and a sloppy Napoleon with a syrupy drizzle of chocolate. I'd skip all of them (though I'd go back for the chak-chak) in exchange for a digestif, which is easily achievable with the restaurant's BYO policy.
Chayhana is not a bastion of fine dining, and the service is more friendly than it is polished. The night of our visit, the petite dining room was filled with garrulous groups speaking in Uzbek over their teapots, while a TV silently blared what can only be described as 'Uzbek Idol.' Our waiter flitted about, distributing platters and whisking empties away as best he could. With the amount of food we tasked him with, it was an admirable display, and more than enough to send us home full on happiness and lamb.