Review: Samarkand Uzbek Restaurant
For many Seoul residents – Korean and expat alike – it is often a surprise to learn that there is a foreign enclave in the very heart of the city where the shop fronts and signs lose the familiar right angles of hangeul and take on the unexpected shapes of Cyrillic. The area around Dongdaemun is a warren of Russian, Uzbek and Kazakh shops, importers, cafes and restaurants, and a trip to eat here makes a refreshing change from the usual rota of galbi, bibimbap and burgers.
Samarkand is a small Uzbek restaurant near Dongdaemun History and Culture Park subway station (the stop formerly known as Dongdaemun Stadium, for old-timers). Like many such eateries in this area, it's a fairly modest sort of place; don't go taking that Apgujeong girl you've been lying to about your financial wherewithal, there are no poodles in handbags here. This is a place for some serious eating, though.
Uzbek food shares much of its DNA with Russian food, and if you've eaten Russian food you'll find many familiar staples here, with borscht, carrot salad, stuffed cabbage (above) and pelmeni dumplings all in evidence.
Oh, that's right, and vodka as well. Our bottle cost W25,000, and that was the most expensive option we were offered; there were cheaper ones. They also have Baltika beers including the pilsner-like Baltika 7 and the lethal No.9, which is basically like a Korean so-mek in a can.
The food was definitely a success with our mixed group of Korean and foreign diners, most of whom had little experience with Russian or Central Asian cuisine. Particular hits were the golubtsy stuffed cabbage (stuffed with meat), the pelmeni (stuffed with meat) and the samsa, big puff pastry triangles stuffed with – well, you can guess. There was also a nice dish called plov – practically the national dish of Uzbekistan, so I am told (a variation on the more familiar word pilaf) which consisted of more chunks of soft meat on a bed of lightly flavoured rice. The borscht was less well-received, and the general feeling about the shiz-biz – french fries topped with fried lamb pieces – was that the heavy, chewy meat added very little to the overall dish.
The star of the show is the shaslik (above), massive kebabs on metal skewers which go for around 4000 won each. Both lamb and chicken (and others) are available. Both were terrific, lightly charred on the outside and juicy on the inside and topped with very more-ish slices of raw onion. After a selection of other dishes, one per head will be plenty, which is just as well since the guy brought our table of six people only one per head, despite our repeated requests for ten.
The menu is in Russian and Korea, with no English so far as I can see. There are pictures of each dish, though, which will help a bit, and I've listed the Cyrillic words for selected menu items at the bottom to help a bit more. There will be much pointing and gesticulation.
The food at Samarkand is tasty and reasonably priced. As with most foreign restaurants in Seoul, the costs can definitely mount up if you eat and drink copiously. When I've eaten here in a group, the bill has generally come to around 25-30,000 won per head, but well over 10,000 of that is usually down to the beer and vodka. If you're not a fat alcoholic like me, you could easily eat here for 15,000 won or less.
- Category: Uzbek / Russian
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: Lamb or chicken shaslik kebab (шашлык), pelmeni dumplings (пельме́ни), stuffed cabbage (голубцы), and plov (Плов) – not to confused with beer (пиво)!
- Subway: Dongdaemun History and Culture Park exit 5
- Directions: Samarkand is a little tricky to find. Come out of Exit 5 of Dongdaemun History and Culture Park station and walk across the road past the Paris Baguette, with the Woori Bank on your left. Past a large-ish Korean restaurant, you turn down the first alleyway on your right with the big Russian deli on the corner. Samarkand is the cafe with the big orange sign about 50 feet down the alleyway on the right. If the first place is full, they have a second location a few steps further on the left – both are the same restaurant, with the same menu, serving food from the same kitchen.