Suddenly, options abound for Central Asian dining — a category which did not even really exist in Pittsburgh before last year. It began with a mini-wave of Nepalese restaurants; now Kavsar, an Uzbek restaurant on Mount Washington, brings us yet another tantalizing new cuisine to discover.
Like Nepal, Uzbekistan's location along the old Silk Road made it a crossroads for disparate cultures and cuisines. Kavsar's menu clearly reflects both Uzbekistan's recent history as a former Soviet Socialist republic, with beef stroganoff and blini-like crepes rolled around savory fillings, and its proximity to China, evident in many dishes based upon noodles and dumplings.
We started with bread, which, as per the menu, is called non and baked in a clay tandyr. Yet, it in no way resembled naan from a tandoor. Instead, the loaf was nearly donut-shaped, with a flattened middle surrounded by a ring of hearty, crusty, risen dough, brushed with butter, browned in the oven and sprinkled with sesame seeds. It was so good, we ordered two more loaves to enjoy at home with coffee and/or wine. (Like other Muslim-run establishments, Kavsar does not serve or permit alcohol.)
In addition to capitalizing on Uzbekistan's primary agricultural product — grain — the cuisine prominently features meat. Historically that means mutton, thanks to a tradition of sheep farming, but Kavsar appears to have adapted its dishes to American tastes by substituting plenty of beef. A richly flavored beef broth amped up the savor in many of our dishes. Samsa, chopped meat and onion in a flaky pastry, was like an excellent, savory croissant, intensely flavored from within by the broth that bound the filling and soaked into the bread without making it soggy or limp. Meat pancakes, served blini-style with sour cream, featured a simpler ground-beef filling, but again the flavor was bigger than the meat, while the crepes were both tender and sturdy enough for the filling.
The crepes made a beautiful presentation in julien, gathered like purses around a stroganoff-like filling of meat, mushrooms and vegetables in a sophisticated, sour-cream-infused sauce.
Salads ranged from simple — long, julienned strips of carrot with onion in a bold dressing of garlic, vinegar and hot paprika — to meal-worthy, with additions of chicken, beef or eggs. A half-dozen soups covered a similar range. We enjoyed the hearty "borsch" with beans in addition to potato, cabbage and beef in a crimson beef-beet broth.
We detected Indian influence in nuhot shurak, a dish of chickpeas in Kavsar's delicious beef broth, topped with hunks of slow-cooked chuck roast and lively spiced onions. And manti — big dumplings available with meat, spinach or pumpkin filling — appeared linked directly to the momos of Nepal. Ours featured wonderful, delicate wrappers around pumpkin that was full of warm spices and earthy flavor. A dollop of sour cream and a sprinkling of dill reminded us, though, of Uzbekistan's relationship with Russia.
Then there is the Middle Eastern influence evident in kebabs. The chicken was juicy dark meat, heady with smokiness. Beef cubes were a bit well done for our tastes, but tender and flavorful nonetheless. An unexpected treat were little salads that were far tastier than their garnish-like proportions suggested, with tomatoes quite good for May, onion softened by vinegar or a touch of heat, and a bright, nearly fruity, dressing. A side of garlic-herb fries was scanty on seasoning, but perfectly golden crisp without and fluffy within. At first, we thought it odd that the stroganoff is served on fries, but having tried them, we understood better.
Lagman was a stir-fry dish in which clearly homemade noodles, their pliant chewiness evoking udon, were topped with diced red and green peppers, chopped green beans and, of course, beef — here thinly sliced across the grain for a melting texture. The menu promised Asian spices, and the dish's Chinese origins were apparent, but it was distinctly Uzbekistan's own.
Finally, we tried Uzbek palov, the national dish, traditionally prepared by men. This simmered dish of beef and carrots over pilaf-style rice was perhaps the meal's only disappointment. It was not overtly flawed, but a little bland compared to the other dishes we sampled. Perhaps a shake of the white-vinegar cruet on the table would have enlivened it.
We ordered as much Uzbek food as we could possibly try, and were rewarded with a dining experience that has, truly, expanded our palates. Kavsar is a welcoming and wonderful introduction to a delicious cuisine.