Restaurant Review: Samarkand, Fitzrovia in London
Uzbek food isn’t something I get to sample very often from the shores of Devon so when an opportunity to visit a restaurant serving just that arises, I grab it with both hands, knife and fork ready!
Glancing at the website of London’s Samarkand informed me that the food I was to expect were gently spiced meats, salads, dumplings, shashlik and a range of meat and fish with seasonal vegetables. Uzbek cuisine typically includes breads, noodles and mutton with Plov being the nation’s signature dish – a rice dish with chunks of meat, carrot and onions.
Samarkand itself is a city in Uzbekistan known for its mosques and mausoleums. It rests on the silk road; the ancient trade route from China to the Mediterranean for those not in the know.
The basement restaurant used the silk road as a theme with a large map mural covering one wall and traditional dishes on the menu. Also the entrance was a little too covert for me – closed doors at the bottom of the stairs didn’t indicate that the restaurant was open, and tiny door handles didn’t help – I don’t do subtle, I’m afraid! Once my guest, Kristy, and I decided that this was the correct form of entry we were shown to our table and were pleasantly surprised at how spacious the restaurant felt with no windows and the underground location. The large open plan room felt airy and light, and we loved the modern décor and relaxed atmosphere.
Small wood hexagonal tables were lined up against banquet seating, while larger tables were surrounded by dark blue booths. If the walls weren’t covered in a map showing the silk road, they had a white marble effect or dark blue tiles or curtains. The lighting was a feature point with huge circular frames holding hundreds of leaf like lights hanging from them, resembling a laurel wreath. Smaller lighting consisted of copper rimmed transparent light shades also hanging from the ceiling. Wood pillars with intricate carvings held up the ceiling and the floor was covered in dark grey tiles. Up a few steps was an open bar area overlooking the restaurant and holding a impressive amount of craft vodkas. You can see the chefs whipping up your food as the kitchen is open and Kristy and I agreed that the whole place offered a welcoming and easy feel for our meal.
We were offered ‘A taste of Samarkand’ – a £25 per person lunch consisting of sharing dishes of two starters, one main course, one salad and a dessert. We happily accepted, eager to try new foods.
First up came the starters of baklajon – a vegetarian dish – and somsa. Baklajon was described on the menu as “Uzbek style smoked aubergine caviar” and it was very smoky but we both got used to the strong flavour. The paste-like texture meant that it could be scooped up by the accompanying pieces of salty, crispy bread thins but we both preferred it with the bread we had received on the side. A pretty salad and pomegranate dressing on top made it look more appealing but this wasn’t my favourite dish. What was our favourite (OK, tied with the dessert due to my sweet tooth) was the somsa – two pastry parcels filled with beef and lamb and scattered with sesame seeds to make the top even crisper. Served with a tomato dip to freshen the flavour of the meat, these warm, crispy layered parcels were lovely. I’m not really a fan of lamb or tomato but I actually really liked this dish. To accompany my food I sipped on a few glasses of a red French Ganache, it was light, fruity and rather too easy to drink!
Our main course was buttermilk marinated lamb shashlik (skewered meat flamed over the robata grill) and achichuk (a traditional salad made with heritage tomatoes, onions and herbs). The slightly charred flavour and gentle spicing on the lamb was nice with a freshly made and flavoursome smoked tomato ketchup. The colourful, fresh and crunchy salad was fragrant and actually more punchy than the lamb. It was a light dish, ideal for a lunch menu but there was too much fat on the skewer for my liking, though when I got a piece of meat it was nice.
For dessert we were brought out baklava cake, which was a light, fragrant sponge with a crispy top and denser layer on the bottom surrounded by a light, foamy, cool cream. Together it melted in the mouth and Kristy and I both loved it. Pistachio pieces and pomegranates sat on top to add texture and different flavours, while edible flowers added some colour.
Admittedly I might not choose some of these dishes again but that’s the joy, and rarely the drawback of a tasting menu – sometimes you feel you might have better off with other dishes. I’d happily go back to sample some dishes from the main menu as there was a lot to choose from and a nice variety on offer. There was a good combination of dishes on the tasting menu though and there was just the right amount of food for lunch. It was fresh, flavoursome and fragrant with gentle spicing and sweetness.
In a nutshell
A true taste of Uzbek cuisine, Fitzrovia’s Samarkand offers fresh, tasty food in fashionable surroundings with the staff endeavouring to create a relaxing and welcoming environment for you.
Address: 33 Charlotte St, Fitzrovia, London W1T 1RR / 020 3871 4969