London’s dining scene surprises like no other. Who would guess that Dollis Hill was home to probably the only restaurant in the UK featuring the fare of the central Asian republic of Uzbekistan?
This sumptuously decorated, richly hued establishment couldn’t be less like its non-descript neighbours – mainly convenience stores and fast-food outlets – on a deeply unlovely stretch in northwest London. Pictures, costumes and huge, hand-embroidered wall hangings of Uzbekistan cover the mud and straw-finished walls. The solid, rustic, farmhouse chairs, also imported from the homeland (at considerable cost, presumably, considering their weight), are more than wide enough to accommodate the amplest of bottoms: indeed, the number of covers (36) could be increased substantially if regular-sized chairs were substituted.
The clientele comprises both Uzbekis and non-so, young and old, and there’s a reasonable smattering of customers on a week night. The maitre d’ (and co-owner) is keen to big-up his country and its dishes, and enjoys a joke and natter with diners. Uzbek pop plays. All is warmth and cosiness.
The fairly brief menu turns out to be even briefer, as various dishes have been discontinued. The waiter points out the cancelled items but it’s hard to remember them all whilst choosing. Updated menus are promised soon.
From a selection of four soups, solyanka (£4.95) is a not particularly meaty broth with a blob of dissipating yoghurt and soft cubes of beef, sausage, tomato and onion. There’s no sign of the promised pickle which would cheer up this overly worthy bowlful. Selyodka pod shuboy (£3.95) translates, delightfully, as ‘herring under the coat’. The coat in question is of mayonnaise and grated cheese. Nestling with the fish are small, soft cubes of potato and beetroot. It’s pleasant enough, and both starters are helped greatly by fresh, doughy, shiny brown crusted bread.
Onto the mains. Osh sofi (£8.95) is Uzbekistan’s national dish. A vast mound of rice (which has been both boiled and fried, giving it an agreeably fatty mouthfeel) is infused with cumin, the only noticeable flavour, and dotted with chickpeas and shreds of carrot, neither of which register much. There are also cubes of reasonably tender lamb. It’s okay comfort food but hardly exciting.
In contrast to the huge mound of osh sofi, manti (Uzbek dumplings, £8.95) is a parsimonious portion of four soft dumplings containing boiled lamb which doesn’t really taste of anything. Thank goodness for the accompanying bowl of yoghurt to help it down. A side salad (achiq chuchuq, £3.20) of apparently undressed tomato, cucumber and onion is unremarkable but perfectly fresh.
It appears Uzbeks aren’t big on puddings. Blinis with Russian cottage cheese or jam (£3.95) is the only regional option, and unavailable on the night of inspection, leaving only that boring old ice cream trio of chocolate, strawberry and vanilla, or a platter of fresh fruit (both £3.50). The ice creams is surely shop-bought and of indifferent quality. The fruit is fruit. Neither is a lip-smacking, end-of meal, naughty treat.
Buxoro (the name of an Uzbek city) is unlicensed, but glasses are cheerfully provided for those who bring their own. Fizzy soft drinks, juices and waters are available at reasonable prices. A pot of black Uzbek tea, drunk without milk, is a delightfully nutty, subtle finale. Green Uzbek tea is also available.
The Last Word
Criticising this endeavour too harshly seems mean. The owners who man the front-of-house are young, keen and immensely proud of their country and its food. And at £20 a head (plus the cost of your BYO), it’s certainly a cheap night out, and an unusual one, too, with a warm ambience. Unfortunately, the cuisine of Uzbekistan may well appear heavy, bland and worthy to many Western palates more used to the freshness of Italy or the spiciness of the East.