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Saturday, December 10, 2005


Restaurant Review: Asiana

Dining experiences in Baku are often unique and frequently memorable -- usually for the wrong reasons.

I know we shouldn't complain about our restaurants, but we do. Sure, we've got four Chinese, a a terrible Thai, a passable Mexican, a few pizza joints, two Lebanese, several Indian, two sushi places, a decent Italian or two and dozens of Georgian and Turkish. We can have a different style of world cuisine every night of the week. You can't say that about Tbilisi or Bishkek or Tashkent.

Even so, in a lot of cases we pay western prices for sullen service, mediocre food and watered down liquor. Sometimes memories of a meal stay with you much longer than you'd prefer.

You should never make jokes about earthquakes in Baku, but a seismic shift has altered the city's dining landscape. Personally, I hope that most of these mediocre restaurants disappear with the opening of Asiana.

It's that good.

The best part of Asiana is, for the duration of your meal, you can completely purge all sounds and images of Baku from your life. Every last item in the restaurant, from the chef to the teak fittings to the place settings were imported. Gentle bamboo shades obscure the activity outside the floor-to-ceiling picture windows but allow light in. Extra thick panes reflect the sound of shrieking police loudspeakers and Godfather-themed car horns back onto the obnoxious street beyond its doors. The Malyasian-style decor is meticulous and understated.

No matter how hard we tried, we couldn't detect one iota of Azeri tackiness in the entire restaurant (except for the Europa -Plus music at lunch. Given the restaurant's state-of-the-art sound system, that was a forgivable misstep by rogue staff that the meticulous owner would certainly not allowed had he been there. I suggest a flogging to ensure discipline in the future).

Then there's the food. We consulted Kenneth, the imported Malaysian chef, for his recommendations before ordering. The man knows his food. The street noodles he suggested were the best noodles I've ever had not purchased on the street in Bangkok. The Producer's garlic, ginger shrimp was delicate and perfectly balanced. Best of all, it wasn't the refrozen-multiple-times rubber that passes for seafood in most places in Baku. The tofu in steamed Broccoli had a faint flavor of soybeans and the broccoli tender and crunchy.

The five us of nearly cried at during dinner. Then, they brought us complementary fried ice cream (a scoop of ice cream stuffed inside a warm donut) after we slavishly heaped praise on the chef. Tears flowed.

There's an impressive wine list of careful selections from South Africa and Chile. Those bottles are pretty steep, but you won't feel deprived ordering the perfectly acceptable eight ($16) Shirvan French house red. It's better than paying five Shirvan ($10) for the repellent Azeri Seven Beauties served at a lot of places.

Even better than the atmosphere, food, fried ice cream and wine are the prices. Most dinner entrees were priced fairly between three ($6) and six ($12) Shirvan. How they keep the prices so reasonable when they import nearly every last ingredient is a mystery (actually, it isn't) but you can easily pay a lot more for a mediocre meal at a dozen other places.

Sure, you can quibble. The service is a little sluggish and the lunch menu substandard. But the restaurant has only been open a couple weeks. Having learned our lesson in the past, we normally invoke the "two-month" rule for new restaurants, a policy lifted with glee for Asiana.

After our meal, we were reluctant to venture out into the streets where something or someone, probably a young male and/or a vehicle, would pop our perfect bubble of anti-Baku, so we retired to the rattan seats of the bar in the back. There was no TV showing any kind of sport or music video.

Since the point of many establishments in Baku is to cleanse, rather than generate, money, most of the crap joints that cater to those with more cash than taste will simply sit empty every night now that Asiana is open, rather than close their doors.

I plan to set up a permanent basecamp in the bar, with a plate of street noodles and a glass of house wine. Maybe they will make a me a non-fat latte in the morning before I leave for work.

Please please tell us where this restaurant Asiana is?! We want to try it this weekend!
It's on a side street off jabar jabarli, right across from the caspian business plaza. the entrance is just up from the corner.
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