Two thousands years ago, modern-day Uzbekistan was part of Persia. Then it was seized by Mongol Empire founder Genghis Khan. Next came the Russians and the Soviets. Hence, at Chayhana Oasis in Sunny Isles Beach, a meal can represent thousands of miles of cuisine.
Thus, you start with Turkish-style grape leaves and proceed to Chinese-inspired kovurmalagman — fried house-made egg noodles flecked with chewy bits of beef and bell peppers topped with an impossibly thin shredded egg crepe. Later comes another western-Chinese-style dish — chopped cucumbers and minced meat tossed with soy and garlic, then sprinkled with a flurry of sesame seeds.
The geographically diverse chow likely made its way onto Uzbeki tables thanks to the country's location on the Silk Road, says 32-year-old Furkat Fayziev, who with his family runs this ornate 130-seater. The restaurant is a gateway to Sunny Isles Beach, which these days is home to many Eastern Europeans. This latest version of Chayhana opened in 2012 after its former landlord refused to renew a lease at a nearby hotel, Fayziev says.
The family embraced the move. The restaurant today is guarded by heavy wooden doors intricately carved in the style of an Orthodox church. Enter and you'll find ornate, sparkling archways lining the walls. There are also mosaic landscapes of medieval life. Each table is covered by two tablecloths, one glittering gold and the other a rainbow-zebra pattern. It's a carnival for the eyes.
In spite of the opulence, the food is supremely comforting. Matriarch Kamila Fayzieva cooked many of the recipes before and after the family left Uzbekistan for America in 2003. The kitchen is run by Muzaffar Hudaybergenov, a 26-year-old cook the family brought over from Tashkent. Together they offer an extensive lineup of dishes that feel familiar even if you've never tried one. They're humble enough to eat throughout the week.
Most meals start with a poppy-seed-flecked round of bread called non — not to be confused with the tandoor-baked Indian variety. In Uzbekistan, it's sort of a catchall term for bread that includes more than two dozen varieties. Fluffy, hot loaves emerge from the oven twice a day. They're the ideal medium for sopping up any lingering bits of sauce.
At lunch, the appetizer called cheburek strikes a recognizable chord, especially in Miami. A thin veil of pastry dough is wrapped around a mound of ground lamb meat fortified with slow-roasted onions and perfumed with a hefty dose of cumin. It's plunged into searing oil, puffing up the starch into a bubbly, chewy delight. Call it an Uzbeki empanada if you like.
That same hearty, fragrant lamb mixture can be found throughout the menu. It's slid onto flat metal spears, grilled over charcoal, and served with translucent red onion curls. It's also tucked into the oversize, pleated dumplings called manty. They followed the Silk Road from western China all the way to the Balkans. In Bosnia, similar savory purses, called klepe, are served with a sauce of yogurt and garlic. Chayhana's version takes 45 minutes to prepare. Order them as soon as you sit. Eventually, they arrive piping hot. A first cut into one releases a gentle flow of a glossy, fatty broth with the lamb meat's intoxicating scent.
More of Eastern Europe is found in beef tongue that's boiled, chilled, sliced, and fanned out over an ornate blue-and-white plate. There's no hint of the off-putting mineral quality that can taint this cut of meat. A small dish of grated horseradish stained magenta with red wine is the ideal foil for each rich bite. The soup called mashkhurda seems to lead south toward Turkey. Vegetable broth is infused with tomato paste, fried onions, and green peas. It's all cooked off with rice and beef to create a robust kind of stew accompanied by house-made yogurt sauce called mazoni. It's a thin, acidic concoction that would be too sharp by itself. Once poured into the soup, it dissolves, and the mixture becomes something that could suffice as a full meal.
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Things wrap up with a slice of honey cake assertively spiced with ginger and layered with sweet cream. This slightly sugary dessert marks the end of a meal substantial enough to steel you for a hard day of work or a late night of drinking.
Chayhana Oasis 250 Sunny Isles Blvd., Sunny Isles Beach; 305-917-1133; Sunday through Thursday noon to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday noon to midnight.
Beef tongue $9.50
Eastern salad $9.95
Lula kebab $12.95
Kovurma lagman $12.95
Zachary Fagenson became the New Times Broward-Palm Beach restaurant critic in 2012 before taking up the post for Miami in 2014. He also works as a correspondent for Reuters.