This ancient trade route goes through the modern nation of Uzbekistan, due north of Afghanistan. The name has little resonance for Americans, although the names of its cities, Tashkent and Samarkand, in particular, have retained a bit of their of ancient mystery and allure.
The food at Kavsar Uzbek Halal Restaurant, Pittsburgh’s first-and-only Uzbek restaurant, reflects this long and complicated history on its plates, in a fairly straightforward way. Imagine a midpoint between Middle Eastern, Russian, Indian and Chinese cuisines, and you’re in the right neighborhood.
“The name (Kavsar) means river in Uzbekistan, that crosses the Silk Way (Road), between China and Russia,” manager Jane Klanovets says. “It’s a market route. We picked this river as the (conduit for) transmission of Asian and Russian culture.
“It was a part of the Soviet Union. Mostly, it’s more like Asian food and Middle Eastern food, kebabs and meat, and lot of spices.”
Pittsburgh’s connection to Central Asia may not be obvious, but as with the recent opening of a few Nepali/Bhutanese restaurants, the market seems to be there.
“We have the population of Uzbek people here, and there’s nowhere for them to eat,” Klanovets says. “It’s a family restaurant, and the owner (Alex Umaraliev) has a big family.”
Kavsar is in the back of Mt. Washington, far from the postcard views of Grandview Avenue, past the thriving business district on Shiloh Street. There’s a small barroom at ground level, but the main dining room is upstairs — a strange little space with peach-colored walls, white-sheet-covered chairs, and a video screen showing what appear to be Uzbek music videos at low volume off in a corner.
Uzbek food is different, certainly, but also surprisingly familiar.
The bread, baked in a clay tandyr and served before the meal, is kind of like a bigger, flatter bagel without the hole in the middle, covered in sesame seeds.
There are a lot of pierogie-like items. Vareniki ($7.99) are handmade boiled dumplings filled with potato and onions. The lighter, less-opaque chuchvara ($7.49) are filled with beef and onions. The bigger manti ($7.99, pumpkin or spinach) are served with sour cream and dill, which seems like a Russian influence.
Kavsar could be the closest thing Pittsburgh has to a Russian restaurant at the moment, which might explain why a certain Russian hockey superstar was dining with friends at the next table.
The dish called simply Kavsar ($12.99) — a roasted-meat sausage, steamed and wrapped with whipped eggs and cheese — looks exotic, but wouldn’t surprise the palate of anyone with a grandma born east of the Rhine River.
The Shurpa ($6.49) soup is a traditional dish, reputed to have properties that surpass even the mythical curative powers of chicken noodle soup.
The Uzbek palov ($9.99) — simmered beef and carrots over pilaf-style rice — is one of Uzbekistan’s signature dishes and is traditionally cooked by men.
“The owner said that the palov, they serve the soldiers this food because it will keep you strong,” Klanovets says.
Although the menu claims, “It is impossible to imagine the Uzbek food without meat,” there’s a small-but-decent array of vegetarian options, as well.
Kavsar Uzbek Halal Restaurant, 16 Southern Ave., Mt. Washington, is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. 412-488-8708 or kavsar.us