Заставская ул., 25. (See Map)
Uzbek and Central Asian Dishes
Meals for ~$7.00 and up
Following weeks of safe, standard local culinary options, this week it was time to venture into the world of St. Petersburg’s ethnic cuisine. Though Georgian food is usually the most well-recognized of the city’s international choices, Georgian is often best enjoyed with a group so as really get value from some of the larger dishes. I was looking for a place that could be enjoyed as a solo adventure. After searching high and low, I ended up at Cafe Almaz, an Uzbek establishment near Moskovskie Vorota.
Off the Beaten Path
Located on a side street in a not-very-touristy section of town, Cafe Almaz is a real diamond-in-the-rough (“алмаз” is “diamond” in Russian). It’s been my experience that these kinds of hole-in-the-wall places can go one of two ways: either you leave feeling lucky that you stumbled upon such a great find, or you slink back out the door, hoping no one saw you come in, after being frightened by what you find inside. Fortunately, Cafe Almaz falls into the “great finds” category.
It is a simple place. The gray-brown sign out front blends into the face of the building. Inside, a large flatscreen TV hangs against a plain white wall playing Russian music videos of the generic variety found in many cafes in Russia. There’s no decorative art to indicate the theme of the restaurant or the type of cuisine. Essentially this is a fairly standard cafe that you might in any one of Russia’s Central Asian neighbors to the south (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan).
There’s hardly even an indication on the menu, aside from the tell-tale presence of lagman and other traditional Uzbek dishes that it might be Uzbek. However, perhaps this a good thing as it is now somewhat trendy for some Central Asian restaurants to try to use a sort of ethnic font that makes the Russian on the menu appear more Arabic. The result is often something that the reader may need to have translated, even if the reader is a native Russian.
Despite the “no-frills” interior, the food is, in a word: incredible. Both the lunch and dinner menus are littered with tons of options, Uzbek, Russian, and otherwise. For starters, I settled on the Salad “Vitamini” which consisted of pickled white cabbage, red peppers, corn, cucumbers, and apple and orange slices. This salad is a staple of cheap Russian lunches – although the Uzbeks here have taken a bit of an untraditional take on it – mixing together lightly pickled cabbage, red peppers, apple, orange slices, and cucumbers. While I’d never ordered this dish anywhere, it turned out to be a great way to get the meal started – really tasty, a healthy serving but not so filling that it was going to spoil my appetite for the next course: the lagman.
If you’ve never tried lagman (pronounced “lahg-mahn”), it is a traditionally Uighur dish and is a Central Asian staple that will be spiced differently depending on the region. At Cafe Almaz it is certainly on the spicy side, but not so spicy as to make it less enjoyable. In fact, I can honestly say that this is probably the best lagman I’ve ever had, and I’ve had my share of it, having lived for more two years as a Peace Corp volunteer in Kazakhstan.
Finally, I also ordered fried pelmeni in sour cream. If you’re used to your pelmeni being boiled, this one can take a little getting used to. Being fried and crispy makes them a little dry on the outside, and there’s not a ton of sour cream. But it’s a change of pace, and I found them very tasty.
Cost and Final Assessment
This was a great meal made even better by the friendly wait staff. I got the distinct feeling that they were not used to serving foreign guests, as they actually both smiled and engaged me in conversation, which is of course not exactly standard practice for servers in Russia. The service was also fast, but not so fast as to make you wonder when the items had been prepared. It was clear that everything I’d ordered was made when I ordered it, as I actually had to wait five or more minutes in between each dish. And not only was the food delicious, it was also affordable. The lagman came in at 120 rubles, the pelmeni was 80, and the salad was 70. I didn’t order a drink (I had my own water in a reusable bottle) but they were available for reasonable prices: 40 rubles for tea, beer for 90, and juice for about 100.
From the delicious food to the kind service to the low prices, I can’t recommend Cafe Almaz strongly enough. While it definitely doesn’t have the look or feel of an ethnic restaurant – it has everything else in spades. I might be partial given my preexisting love of lagman and simple hole-in-the-wall restaurants, but aside from Frikadelki this might be the best eating-out experience I’ve had in St. Petersburg. And unlike Frikadelki, you get to enjoy real ethnic food made fresh when you order. So if you’ve grown tired of local options and are looking to add a little spice to your diet, definitely consider giving the Uzbek cuisine at Cafe Almaz a try.
For groups and faculty-led tours, Café Almaz might be option if you plan ahead and order the back room, which can separated off for weddings and other group events. Otherwise, if you have more than about 10 people, it’s possible you won’t all fit into the little restaurant if they are at all busy.