The USSR brought together a number of culinary traditions and Russia’s current restaurant scene still reflects the popularity of many of those foods in Russia today. Continued migration from former Soviet states in Eastern Europe, the Caucausus, and Central Asia also helps not only keep these traditions alive in Russia, but also add to the authenticity. Below are two great places to try Central Asian cuisine in Irkutsk that SRAS students who have studied there have found and would like to share with you.
Sof’i Perovskoy Ulitsa, 8
Chaikhana Ok Saroy (Чайхaна Ок-Сарой) café is a small restaurant located near the university in the area of the central market. It is about one block away from Shanghi City making it a great lunch option after wandering around the bazaar. The entrance is clearly marked and, once inside, the restaurant is on the second floor. The staff all speak Russian and Uzbek and the delicious shashlik and intricate patterns decorating the dining room make this restaurant a must to visit.
The interior décor is beautiful with its Uzbek tapestries, tableware, and interesting architecture. The wait staff, all in traditional Uzbek clothing, are much more attentive than those in the majority of restaurants I have tried and they give suggestions which is much appreciated.
I got the feeling that this was a local place that is frequented by regulars so do expect to get stared at a bit, especially if you do not appear in any way Uzbek. You should also know that as it is frequented by Uzbeks and prides itself on being traditionally Uzbek, you should also know that there are some ground rules you should abide by.
First, there is a sink by the entrance on the second floor and it is expected that you wash your hands there before entering and eating.
Second, there are two main areas to dine, the normal tables and the raised seating area. The raised seating area is set up like a traditional central Asian tea house – which is what “chaikhana” actually means: “tea house.” There are low table and cushions to sit on, and it is required to remove one’s shoes and sit cross-legged at the low tables. I was not bold enough to choose this option and opted for the normal table and chairs.
Third, the menu, although full of great food, contains nor pork or alcohol. The Uzbeks are a predominantly Muslim society and both of these are forbidden in that faith. In fact, no alcohol is even allowed on the premises – even unopened wine from a store, so do not bring anything in or expect to have a beer there. The menu is hung over the kitchen in a large font with pictures so it is very easy to figure out what is in each dish if some of the words are new. There is quite a variety of options, but the shashlik is the best according to the waitress. I agree. It’s cooked fresh to order and the scent from the man on the first-floor cooking is simply to die for.
There is also an Uzbek bread called lepyoshka (лепёшка) which is served before the shashlik. It’s a great thick flatbread that isn’t as dense as the normal Russian bread at the market. It’s delicious, but note that it comes with rules too. You must never cut it – it is only to be broken with one’s hands. The tea comes in a small teapot and the cups are all handle-less, as is traditional in Uzbekistan.
The last thing to keep in mind is not particularly Uzbek, but is fairly common across many small cafes like this in Russia. They will either give you the check or leave it up front, but either way payment is done at the cash register, not with the waitress.
If you are interested in Uzbek culture, art, or simply a lovely meal, try Ok Saroy. It’s a cultural experience you won’t soon forget and the atmosphere and freshness of everything served will be enough to make you come again.
Karla Libknekhta St. 107 В
Omar Khayyam Café is perfect for a student of any budget. I wandered upon this place while on a wild goose chase for a cat café that I found out had closed down. Needless to say, I was disappointed…until I found Omar Khayyam Café! Located on Karla Libknekhta St along bus number 80’s route, it is intriguing to say the least. The café serves Central Asian food specifically from Tajikistan. The café is named after the famous poet Omar Khayyam and his work is featured all over the restaurant. The décor on the inside is truly impressive. From the outside, it looks like any other café/hookah bar but upon entry it is gorgeous! Each table has a different piece of traditional art or musical instrument hanging on the wall. The entryway had beautiful traditional clothes on display in addition to tapestries to view. Sadly, I was not able to take a picture because it specifically stated no photos, but all the more reason to see it for yourself!
There are two different menus, lunch and dinner. The business lunch was only 200 rubles but the dinner menu had different lamb and plov dishes which were a bit pricier. The service was very good and the waiter was very quick and attentive. According to the waiter they change the décor every few months and they have three other rooms that they rotate during different seasons. The one minor complaint I have is the font on the menu. It was a bit difficult to read because of the style it is written in. The Cyrillic М, И, and Й were hard to distinguish but nothing a little focus won’t combat. The food was flavorful and fresh in addition to a whole teapot of green or black tea included in the lunch. The meal, which included beef plov, borsht, and a small dessert, also came with an odd sesame bread that was surprisingly good despite its dense makeup.
During the meal, there was ethnic Tajikistani music playing and tons to look at. I also heard that they have very good wines from a few friends but didn’t try any while there. The waiters speak Russian but their first language is Farsi and the restaurant is family owned. The waiter apparently messed up a word (I didn’t notice) and started apologizing for his bad Russian, which led us into a wonderful conversation about why both of us were in Irkutsk. I observed all of the staff being talkative with their customers so in addition to exquisite décor and great food it is also a good place to practice speaking with a local.
This is a great place to go with friends for lunch or dinner although their menu is much more extensive during dinner hours. If you are going solo it is also a great place to chill, enjoy a cheap meal, and drink some tea. It isn’t the most study friendly place however. I didn’t feel like it was laid back to the point that I would be comfortable with my homework strewn on the table while the other customers are trying to enjoy a peaceful meal. While it may not be a hot study location, it is definitely worth stopping by. Who knows, maybe you’ll even meet a few kind locals willing to practice with you, I sure did!