Text by Charles W. Borden
Baku native, and Los Angeles transplant Shiraz Mamedov issued our first invitation to Barashka, which he called his favorite Moscow Azeri restaurant, claiming that it does for Azeri cuisine what Pushkin Café has done for Russian.
Barashka has two locations, on Novy Arbat across from the Oktyabr cinema complex, and on Petrovka. Both fall under the Novikov umbrella, but like most Novikov restaurants there is a third party owner, in this case Rudolf Movsumov. A few weeks later, at the invitation of Georgian Timuri Lomsadze, we returned, this time to meet Rudolf in person.
The Novy Arbat location has a nice covered summer terrace and Shiraz secured a table on a nice summer evening. Barashka is stylishly decorated with pleasantly subtle Caucasus touches of color, texture and fabrics, in contrast with most other southern ethnic restaurants that overdo the decorative flourishes and costumes to the point that they all appear alike. However, the Novikov design trademark is also apparent at Barashka – at Novikov’s restaurants you will usually find masses of identical objects – large glass jars full of lemons, a huge basket of peppers or cinnamon sticks, or a wall constructed of simple uniform vases.
The Barashka menu has more than a dozen pages of Azeri dishes with descriptions appealing enough to invite as many visits to try them. The choice was difficult so we let Shiraz select his favorites for the table. A plate of sliced veal basturma was first out, quickly followed by a large tray of sprigs of fresh dark greens – purple basil, cilantro, mint, sorrel and others – with very fresh cucumbers and tomatoes (400r). The basturma was a deep, dark veal with a thick spice coating, semi-dried and cured with a resulting spicy, powerful taste. For starters, we had a selection of qutabs, thin, flat and filled pastries. In our case we tried qutabs with cheese (300r), qutabs with greens (300r) and qutabs with meat (300r). The quatabs were surprisingly delicate, belying, and in this case complementing the strong tastes of Azeri and Caucasus cuisine – the qutabs with greens were an especially bit hit.
Barashka has a large selection of interesting sounding soups, and though I normally am not big on soups I tried two broth soups: Arushta Chicken Soup with noodles and meatballs (350r) and Dyushbara with small Azeri lamb dumplings (450r). The dyshbara consists of tiny dumplings in a broth made with onion, mint, cilantro and perhaps plums, a delightful combination of flavors.
Shiraz described Azeri cuisine as original yet diverse, using a rich assortment of herbs, vegetables, fruits, spices, meat and fish from the Caspian area. Spice and flavor are provided by anise, capiscum, caraway, celery, dill, fennel, laurel, mint, parsley, saffron, sorrel, tarragon, thyme and other less familiar ingredients. Lemon, olives, plums, apricots and dried fruits are used extensively in cooking. Lamb, beef, chicken are principal meats and sturgeon is a local fish. Azerbaijan has strong cheeses typical of the Caucasus using fresh and sour milk and are used as a base for soups and sauces. The region might be best known for plov or rice pilaf, and Shiraz stated that there were scores of variants served in Azerbaijan.
On my first visit I took the Azeri Pasta with fried chicken and tomatoes (550r) – very satisfying and tasty. During our visit with Rudolf we shared a large plate of grilled meats and which included Chicken Lulya-Kebab (300r) and Lamb Lulya-Kebab (450r). Particularly interesting were the semechki, which is the word used for the sunflower seeds so popular in this region, however in this case they were one-inch long sections of grilled lamb ribs (300r).
Barashka has a reasonable selection of wines but we were disappointed that they did not have any satisfactory wines from Azerbaijan. We hope this will change – we have heard from our friend, grapevine grower and exporter Henri Bernabe of Montpellier, that he is working to plant new vines in Azerbaijan, but we will have to wait a few years.
I was glad to visit Barashka, thanks to Shiraz and Timuri; these two locations definitely show the potential for cuisine from the region. Barashka shows a passion for cooking and presentation that has been sadly missing from most of the Caucasus region establishments I have visited over the years.