This new Kazakh restaurant occupies a room over an unsalubrious looking pub; the bouncers outside the door, smoking as we arrived, weren’t even wearing uniforms (we wondered at first if they were just hoodlums). But the dining room lives up to the name – 'dastarkhan' means a low dining table, but also the whole Central Asian eating ritual, and the room mixes neat tables, colourful cushions and carpets. On our Friday night visit a three-piece band were doing overly loud Beatles covers to warm up the diners before a belly dancer came on.
Kazakh cuisine today is a peculiar mix of Russian faves and traditional Central Asian dishes. Soviet rule brought to this ancient Silk Route country herring and borsch. Prior to this, centuries of nomadic life shaped the diet of meat (often horse – on the menu but 'not available' when we asked) and soured dairy products (such as kumyz, fermented mare’s milk – not on this menu ).
Central Asian cookery uses little spicing, so is reliant on good quality ingredients. At its best, the food can be ingenious and soul-nourishing; at its worst it is bland and stodgy.
The sight – and sniff – of shurpa, a clear soup of mutton, potatoes and carrots, was more than an acquired taste, though the spicy, sweet and sour ‘Korean’ carrot salad with lots of garlic was refreshing – it’s a popular dish in Kazakhstan, clearly useful in breaking up the meat/potato monotony. Beshparmak was more tired mutton served with lasagna-like pasta, onions and potatoes briefly cooked in the same stock where meat was boiled.
Manti, the Central Asian version of Chinese steamed dumplings, were served cold. Sour cream and chilli paste added a much needed kick, but the latter was a far cry from the ‘tear-your-eyes-out’ concoction often served with manti. By the pudding stage the raucous party next to us and our flagging curiosity levels forced us to finish off our Baltika beer and retreat.
Dastarkhan is quirky, but the food is dull and, on our visit, the service varied from enthusiastically friendly to hopelessly amateur. But at least the belly dancer put a smile on our faces.