If all you know about Azerbaijan is that it is a former Soviet republic, you may assume that its food falls into the Eastern European category. Looking at a map, however, you'll see that Azerbaijan is closer to Turkey and Iran than to Moscow, which explains the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern influence in the food. For diners that means a wide variety of dishes; for vegetarian diners at Caucasus Garden in Sheepshead Bay, that means lots of options to choose from.
The eggplant "caviar" ($6.90) is a prime example of that Middle Eastern influence. Grilled eggplant is minced and mixed with sweet peppers, onions, and fresh garlic, all swimming in olive oil. Although it seems like a small portion for the price, this dish is packed with flavors. Salty, sweet, and slightly spicy, the cold appetizer is more than enough for two people to share. Unfortunately this price does not include anything on which to spread the eggplant.
The good news is that an order of warm, puffy lavash will only cost you $1. This bread is a perfect companion to almost everything on the menu, not just the eggplant.
The menu describes dovga as "the Azerbaijani National meal". It's a yogurt soup made with dill, garlic, eggs, rice, and "flower"—when asked, my server said this meant "greens". My research makes me think that the greens are actually sorrel. Dovga can be served either warm or cold, and at my server's recommendation I got it warm. There's something unique about eating warm yogurt soup, as the sourness is accentuated; it's not for everyone. Again, the warm lavash makes a nice accompaniment to the herbal soup.
At the top of the page you see the heartiest of the dishes I tried, mushroom julian ($7.90). Here the dish is filled to the brim with mushrooms in a sour cream sauce, then topped with cheese and baked like a gratin. This is vegetarian comfort food done right, being rich and creamy and rustic. Although it is a traditional Russian dish, this kind of food transcends cultural boundaries.
For something lighter you can try a kutab ($2 each), a paper-thin pancake stuffed with either meat or, in this case, fresh chopped spinach. Although on its own the filling seemed a little bland and the pancake a little dry, once it was dipped in the provided yogurt sauce the bold flavors almost exploded in my mouth. It may look a bit oily on the outside, but in reality it was anything but.
Lying as it does in the crossroads from Eastern Europe to Western Asia and the Middle East, Azerbaijan is uniquely situated to bring all of those seemingly disparate cuisines together. It's rare for a vegetarian to be able to order such a wide variety of dishes off of the same menu, and have them be so good. Caucasus Garden is the perfect place to try something new while still being comforted by familiar flavors.
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