With geopolitical tensions at an all-time high, we all have to do our bit in order to reach out to new cultures, learn their ways…and eat their food. That’s why I was eager to try Samarkand, Mayfair’s new Uzbek restaurant that purveys traditional Silk Road dishes and craft vodkas, neither of which I am used to but both of which I am keen to try out. All in the name of diplomacy, of course.
The restaurant’s website features a quote about the eponymous city, uttered by none other than Alexander the Great, “Everything I have heard about the beauty of Samarkand is true, except that it is even more beautiful than I could have imagined.” As a man who wasn’t known for his lack of vision, this sets a fairly high precedent, and I get a little nervous when approaching the door – although this could be a combination of the thickset bouncer outside and the fact that I might have forgotten my ID. Fears are quickly allayed by a warm smile from the doorman who opens a door in the wood-panelled entrance to reveal a staircase leading to the underground restaurant.
We check our coats with the friendly reception staff and are led through the dining area that boasts a sparse yet elegant décor. A large patch of red is plastered on the far wall and I genuinely think that it is a chic take on the exposed brickwork/peeling wallpaper that is so popular in the cooler bars of Berlin, until my father – who’s dining with me tonight and has a better grasp of geography and interior decorating – points out that it’s more likely to be a map of Eastern Europe. Glad I brought him along.
After getting settled into a comfortable booth in the bar area, we decide that this is the sort of place where James Bond would meet a Cold War-era defector, the glam and glitz of the place screaming opulence whilst still having an exciting edge. The toilets have ornate, golden door knockers whilst a display of spirits and liqueur surrounds a bejewelled skull next to where the barman is shaking our cocktails.
My Bee Fashioned is a shockingly tart take on an Old Fashioned, the Tasmanian mountain pepper and black pepper syrup lending a sour tang to the healthy measure of Jefferson’s Bourbon, all poured over a globe of ice the size of a baseball. The Merchant Sour comes highly recommended, its blend of truffle-infused Genève liqueur, red wine, cheese whey powder and pickled spice syrup creating a soft and velvety libation that’s not like anything else I’ve tasted in a long time.
We head to the restaurant and take our seats, perusing the menu as the lovely waitress tells us an amusing story behind the tattoos on her hands. The staff outfits are fun, braces and bright shirts, and the addition of a gigantic Christmas tree lends an air of conviviality to the basement setting. A quietly bonkers electro soundtrack sets the tone of a night out on the town and we select our dishes, keeping one eye on the bustling open kitchen that also adds to the ambience.
After keeping our hunger at bay with slices of delicious cumin-flecked white bread, the starters arrive. The vodka and dill-cured trout is presented in a floral fashion, slices of beetroot and blobs of horseradish cream presenting the dish as a bouquet of colours, with varied textures and flavours to match. Even better is the smoked duck salad, a thick disc of shredded white cabbage adorned with edible flowers and halved soft-boiled quail eggs with thin strips of smoked meat layered on top, adding a subtle meaty punch. Washed down with a glug of a delightful smooth Marlborough Pinot Noir, it’s as if we’re at the poshest picnic imaginable.
The quail eggs return for the main course of Plov (the national dish of Uzbekistan, a sharing plate that also shares the same name of a chef I used to work with. True story.), as they are scattered over the top of beef short rib and roast lamb, along with pomegranate seeds, spring onion and what appear to be poached pear segments. A large bed of rice provides a nourishing carb-load but it’s the meat that is the real star here, slow-cooked until so tender that the crunch of a pomegranate seed seems firmer than the strips of beef and lamb. The grated-then-stewed carrots lend a further sweetness to the dish and it’s so enjoyable that I struggle to engage my brain to think of an appropriate description. Luckily, Dad is on hand again. “It’s like sophisticated Greek food.” Mic drop.
After we share a bowl (quick note – the crockery is gorgeous, simple, rustic and what every West London kitchen designer dreams of) of fruity sorbets and polish off a coffee, we bid farewell to the staff and take off into the chilly December evening, bellies full of unpretentious yet absolutely memorable cuisine.
I’ll leave you with a quote that’s often misattributed to Alexander the Great (but it actually originated with Alan Rickman’s character in Die Hard. I think.), “And Alexander wept for there were no more worlds left to conquer.” If our leaders worried less about conquering worlds and focused more on what the earth has to offer in terms of culture, art and, yep, food, they’d be fewer tears before bedtime.
Samarkand Restaurant, 33 Charlotte Street, London, W1T 3RR
Tel: +44 (0)20 3871 4969
The restaurant is a five-minute walk from Goodge Street Tube station on the Northern Line and opposite The Rathbone Hotel. It is open Tuesday and Saturday for lunch from midday to 3:00pm and for dinner from 6:00pm to 11:00pm on Tuesday and Wednesday and from 6:00pm to 01:00 Thursday to Saturday. Closed on Sunday and Monday.
Type of Restaurant: Fine Dining Uzbek Cuisine
“A true original, Samarkand delivers unpretentious but delicious food in chic surroundings…vodka fans must visit.”
Price Band: High
Reviewer’s Rating: 8/10
David Harfield is the director of PepperStorm Media and writes about his three passions: food, booze and travel.
Photographs courtesy of Samarkand