Long before there was a seven-syllable word to describe it, cultures interacted, spreading stories and spices, religious doctrine and eye color. 1001 Nights bills itself as Middle Eastern, but Central Asian might be more appropriate: its food demonstrates Turkish, Russian, Afghan, and Korean influences, a happy intermingling of tastes and textures that reflect the cuisine of Uzbekistan. If only multiculturalism was always so harmonious.
In this restaurant on the border of Brighton Beach and Sheepshead Bay, we were Uzbek until proven otherwise. Not once, not twice, but on three different occasions we were addressed in either Uzbek or Russian—the first time this has happened outside of international travel. Part of the joy of our visit came from simply reading the menu, which overflowed with lovable hyperbole. A certain salad relied on a "recipe whispered by oriental fairytales," while shurpa "Zeynab" ($5.95), a meat and vegetable soup, offered to stimulate the appetite and provide "an energy boost for the entire day."
A lot of food arrived in fast waves. We started with khanum ($6.50): "It is still a mystery as to how this dish got its intriguing name that translates as 'Mistress,'" the menu intoned. Diced potatoes and onions loosely hanging out between thin sheets of steamed pasta revealed nothing about the dish's origins. Although the tomato sauce on top tasted like a store-bought afterthought, we liked the lightly cooked hash browns, almost a breakfast lasagna, and the overall effect was surprisingly delicate.
The urama with brynza ($5.95) were more familiar, cheese wrapped in phyllo, shaped like a cigar, and deep fried. They were fine. We tore trapezoid-shaped wedges from the warm wheel of bread and dipped them into the accompanying garlic yogurt sauce, pungent with dill.
The chuchvara ($5.95) reminded us of manti or wontons, all variations on the theme of tightly folded dough harboring a secret stuffing. In this case, underseasoned meat. Nevertheless, dunking each dumpling into the aforementioned sauce, then crunching through the crispiness to get at the soft center kept us pleasantly occupied. Somehow they kept multiplying, though, and we barely made a dent in the amount we were served.
Featuring carrots, nakhat peas, raisins, and lamb, the pilaf "Toi Osh" ($7.50) could have used a shake or two of salt as well. But it lacked little else, fairly exploding off the plate. The lamb was flaky and supple. According to the menu, the rice is often served at weddings, and its greasy warmth oozed a feeling of celebration.
Our Yangiyul chicken ($12.50) smelled of coconut and spanned two adult hands. The waiter had to bend from the knees to drop the plate off at our table, an awesome amount of food for 13 bucks. Beneath the smoky, crackling skin was super-moist meat. And at last we found the peppery seasoning we so craved elsewhere.
Paper napkins contrast with the trompe l'oeil ceiling of clouds and distant peaks as well as the lovely blue-and-white tableware. Dozens of seats along communal tables speak to the restaurant's brisk banquet business: make a reservation, particularly if you'd like to see the belly dancing at 9 pm on Friday or Saturday. Towards the back some tables have been carved into the wall, with gauzy curtains and cushions, ideal for a private meal. And in the very back, a nook of a room glows green, for reasons we could not ascertain.
Our planet is a very big place. A prosaic observation only until you look at a map and contemplate the movement of people across vast areas before Wi-Fi-friendly flights and noise-cancelling headphones. This restaurant lets you sample some of that history, taking you from Neptune Avenue to the Silk Road. 1001 Nights is best for: a date who's a citizen of the world, whose broad interests are matched by a big appetite.