Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Great Bukharan Bazaar (Part 2)

We trudge back along slushy streets toward Queens Boulevard in the hopes of finding a warm and convivial bar, though—knowing the prospects of watering holes may be scarce—we’ve come armed with firewater: a pint of Smirnoff’s for Dave, a flask of Jack Daniels for me. No bars in sight, and the first restaurant we decide to try, the Samarkand, pointedly informs us in hand-lettered signs: NO ALCOHOL. Screw that.

So we go to Arzu near the subway, a modest little place whose name translates as “dream” and whose décor might best be described as Late ‘50s New Jersey Diner: turquoise plastic-covered chairs, formica tables, and grim fluorescent lighting. But the waitress is a cheerful young woman who tells us she is here from the city of Ufa, 500 miles from Moscow in Bashkiria, to study business at a nearby school. After she brings us cups for our libations, Dave orders a hearty soup made from what tastes like a rich meat stock, garnished with scallions and thick with chunks of lamb and lagman, long hand-pulled noodles that I later learn have evolved from Chinese lo-mein. The dumplings called Manti, with a sauce of tomato and garlic, will take a while to cook, as do the lamb-rib kebabs. Meanwhile Dave, whose command of Russian is wowing everyone within earshot, is corralled by a group of guys in the back and invited to share a liter of Johnny Walker Black and taste their special order of Kurma Lagman.

The kebabs and a huge platter of dumplings arrive while he’s yukking it up with the Zhivago gang. I’m too hungry to wait for him and so dive in while studying a copy of a local giveaway magazine, a kind of hybrid of The Pennysaver and Pravda. I can’t understand a word of it, of course, but there are a zillion ads for doctors and dentists, realtors, florists, car services, photo studios, computer repair shops and…rabbis? Why do rabbis have to advertise? For an emergency bris or a last-minute bar mitzvah? There are also stories here about Joe Stalin, Purim, and Russian history. (No ads for escort services, however, even though young Russian women are often drop-dead gorgeous. I guess this is a family paper, and one goes elsewhere for those pleasures.)

Most poignant, though, are the death notices in the back—full pages with photos, some of the subjects wearing native garb or pictured earlier in life. They remind me of the photos posted in Venetian shops of neighbors who have died, and the tributes are somehow so much more touching than a black-and-white obituary--a reminder that real people generally don’t find their way into the major newspapers at any point in their progress through the great schlep of life.

The garlicky lamb-ribs are fabulous, and I grudgingly save a skewer for Dave, but I find the dumplings a little watery, like giant steamed wontons filled with—well, I’m sorry, but it looks somewhat like canned cat food and has less flavor (or so I imagine--my last feline, Sherman, was never big on sharing). You can’t complain that it’s not all terribly filling, however, and the tab for all this plus tea and crusty bread is less than $20.

Determined to tuck in another meal, Dave gets directions to a nearby kosher restaurant called Cheburechnaya. Before leaving, though, he spots his watch-repair guy, who is clearly blown away at seeing him so far from 14th Street in Manhattan. At least he doesn’t have a liter of Black Label, so we are able to make a relatively quick exit.

IF YOU GO: The trip via the V or F train takes about 40 minutes from 42nd Street in Manhattan. Get off at the 67th Avenue stop. Arzu is just a few steps from the subway entrance. For more details, see the review in New York magazine:

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