18 Thayer Street, W1U
Acting like some kind of sympathetic background, the rain drizzled down on us as we made our way up Thayer Street towards Samarqand, a restaurant that hopes to bring Central Asia that little bit closer to Central London. After dragging our wet brolly down the stairs and into the basement (and past the scary-looking guy in strange coat outside) we were shown to the best table in the house, with views out over the restaurant and the perfect people-watching perch. The interiors were quite pleasant, with beiges, browns and golds offset by a backlit mirror, a statue of a horse and an open kitchen that enables you to peer into the clay ovens to check on your order. That said, there’s nothing much of the exotic about the decor, but perhaps it was to come in the form of fabulous food?
Almost as soon as we were handed the cocktail menu and wine list they were whipped from our hands; according to the ever-so charming waiter there had been a problem with the license, and because of such alcohol was off the menu. A shame, considering the only saving grace in The Independent’s fiercely negative review had been the Snow Queen organic wheat vodkas John Walsh had name-dropped. Having ordered two sparkling waters – not what one wants after a hard day at the office, as confirmed by a number of similarly disappointed faces around us – we were left to peruse the menu. As promised in the press release, dishes leapt from Uzbekhistan to Kazakhstan, with influences from Russia, China and Mongolia. After a too-lengthy description from our waiter about what was what, we opted for lamb samsa and aubergine caviar for starters. While the latter was pleasant enough (if not a little soggy) with spicy aubergine and tomato salsa complimented by red peppers and herbs, the lamb samsa did nothing for us; it was like a dry Indian samosa without personality, even when dipped in the flavourless stock it came with. With nothing but water to quench our thirst, we waited with bated breath for our mains; Kazan kabob and lamb manty. The first, a dish of stewed lamb served with thyme rustic potatoes and spinach, was good. Not brilliant, but good; the meat was tender and fell off the bone with one prod of the fork, while the potatoes and spinach provided hearty accompaniments. The lamb manty – steamed lamb dumplings with Asian herbs and yogurt dressing – was also quite tasty; the meat inside was bursting with flavour, while the yogurt dressing and side salad provided respite from eating six of them one after the other. Finishing things off was a pot of mint and green tea, poured into the cup and back into the pot again three times as is tradition in Central Asia.
With our dinner eaten, we had more time to take in our surroundings; despite being something of a dry house, the restaurant was three-quarters full and had something resembling atmosphere with the gentle murmur of foreign banter and Indian restaurant-style tunes blaring out on the speakers. As for the crowd? Razor-thin girls tottered around in red-soled Louboutins, while their sharp-suited other halves tapped away at tables on BlackBerries. It was clear that this was not a place favoured by Londoners – at least not yet – but by locals coming to taste a little of home. And so long as they keep flocking through the doors, Samarqand will do just fine. Although we do suggest they sharpen up the starters and get the wine flowing, pronto. Londoners don’t do teetotal.
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