A note about my restaurant reviews: New York City counts many Eastern European restaurants scattered across the five boroughs, most of them ignored by restaurant critics and diners alike. I intend to visit as many as I can and report!
Uma’s in Rockaway Beach combines two elements that you rarely find together: Uzbek food and a surf theme. Seriously, close your eyes for a second, and imagine the Aral Sea. Water’s optional: once one of the world’s four largest lakes, it has now shrunk to about 10% of its original size and been replaced by a vast desert. Do you picture an Uzbek wearing Hawaiian swim trunks on a surf board there? No. But then, I once met an Uzbek in a bar in Lake Placid who was training a Russian ski team for a competition the next day, even though Uzbekistan isn’t exactly known for its winter sports prowess either (last and only medal at the Winter Olympic Games: freestyle skiing, Lillehammer 1994). So I guess everything’s possible, and Uma’s is there to prove it.
In the summer, there are in fact two Uma’s. While the main restaurant is a stone’s throw from Cross Bay Boulevard (one of Rockaway’s main access roads from the rest of New York), during beach season they also open an outpost at the nearby 97th Street concession, right on the seashore. This gives you the unique opportunity to eat Central Asian food for both lunch and dinner — a Food Perestroika reader’s dream come true.
Uma’s, on the beach:
The 97th Street concession groups Rockaway’s largest variety of food and drink stands, from BBQ to lobster rolls to ice cream to… Central Asian food. Place your order, wait 10 minutes or so, and grab your lunch to eat at one of the nearby tables or back at your spot on the sand. The menu is very simple — choose between shish-kebab platters (chicken, vegetables, filet mignon, lamb, or salmon) and pirozhki (potato, cabbage, egg & scallion, beef & rice).
The pirozhki are made to order right in front of your eyes. One of the cooks rolls the dough on a small counter next to the stovetop, adds your filling of choice, shapes it into a large dumpling, and shallow-fries it in a pan. This is a departure from the typical Russian pirozhki, which are usually much smaller and baked. The shallow-frying is less than ideal for something this big. The lack of control on the oil temperature probably makes the dough a bit greasier than desirable. Stop paying attention for a minute, and your dough starts burning. It’s just a good thing the average beachgoer doesn’t know what pirozhki usually are. Regardless, freshly made pirozhki still beat reheated pirozhki any day.
The beef and rice pirozhok (singular form of pirozhki) is filled with ground beef, rice, onion, and red hot pepper flakes. The mixture, very moist and not too spicy, is fairly plain but nice. The cabbage pirozhok contains green cabbage with Uzbek spices like cumin and hot pepper flakes. It’s again very moist and tastes great. In fact, it’s my favorite, even though I don’t like cabbage that much. Highly recommended!
The egg and scallion pirozhok is filled with a chopped mixture of hard-boiled eggs, scallions (quite a lot of them: at least 1/3 of the whole filling), and rice, probably seasoned with just salt and pepper. It’s better than I expected, as I’m usually skeptical of fried dough filled with eggs. I’d probably rank it second after the cabbage dumpling.
The shish-kebab platters come with rice and salad unless you tell them otherwise (no salad for me). The filet mignon kebab is very tender, juicy, and perfectly seasoned (salt, hot pepper, maybe something else but I’m not sure what). Don’t forget to say how you want it cooked if you don’t want it well done! I got mine around medium, which was more than what I asked for, but it was still very good. The rice is just okay. It’s your standard white rice prepared in a rice cooker, slightly overcooked, with some fat added. At least it goes well with the kebab. You can get some mild garlic tomato sauce at the counter, but I don’t find it necessary.
Overall, this is a much better lunch than what you typically get on the beach. Without having tried all the other food stands, I do know that at least one of them turns out a very average burger.
Uma’s, the mothership:
Brick-and-mortar Uma’s is Rockaway’s first Michelin-rated restaurant (rated, not starred). This is where you’ll find the Uzbek-meets-surf bar atmosphere. It starts with the surf board on the sidewalk, and continues on almost every wall inside. Pictures of dudes with surf boards. Surf videos playing on the screen above the bar. And even a small surf-themed library, instigated by a donation of 15 years’ worth of Surfer’s Journal magazines. Apparently, there’s live music on some evenings — no, it’s not the Beach Boys.
In the summer, most customers look like they just came from the beach. And for a reason. Even if people aren’t specifically looking for Uzbek food or a Michelin-endorsed dinner, the restaurant is very well-situated for most beach traffic, next to the big parking lot by the beach. This also means that the place is regularly quite crowded, so you might have to wait a bit for a table — a first for an Uzbek restaurant.
The reasonably sized menu starts with a handful of Uzbek savory pastries, some Central Asian-inspired salads, and a few soups. Interestingly, you don’t get to order the pirozki here, but the same kebabs you had at the beach shack are listed as main courses, alongside plov and various Uzbek boiled dumplings. Add to this a board with half a dozen specials that may be more, less, or not at all Central Asian, including desserts.
On the tables, you’ll find shakers of salt, black pepper, and red pepper flakes. As you’ll see, these come in pretty handy for almost every dish. But it’s worth reminding folks that food should be seasoned before or during cooking, not after, so that the salt can penetrate instead of being barely deposited on top like a condiment. Putting a salt shaker on the table isn’t the same.
So let’s get started with the samsa, a lamb pastry topped with black and white sesame seeds. The dough seems similar to the pirozhki dough, except it’s baked instead of fried. The filling combines onion, ground lamb, and potatoes. It tastes good, but it really lacks salt, and I don’t detect any Uzbek spices inside, either. It could also use some more meat. The thin, slightly spicy tomato sauce served on the side goes quite well with it.
The squash bichak looks like a very big pirozhok (the baked Russian kind), again topped with two kinds of sesame seeds. The filling of squash, onion, cumin, and black pepper is very nice. No salt.
The scallion pancakes would be more aptly described as shallow-fried discs of dough with a bit of scallion mixed in. They’re good, though, and I like the yogurt sauce on the side. They also pair well with the lagman below. Again, no salt.
The lagman, a noodle soup with a little bit of meat and lots of vegetable chunks, is the perfect soup for people like me who are not that into soup: it contains very little liquid. The long noodles are like thick spaghetti, the very tender beef might be some kind of flank steak (judging by the grain), and the many vegetables include red pepper, green pepper, carrot, onion, green bean, and celery, with some dill on top. The bouillon in particular is excellent, with a rich vegetable taste resulting from cooking all those veggies in very little liquid. The soup comes with a garlic and hot pepper paste to mix in according to taste. Use it, because there’s no other seasoning, not even salt.
The manty (steamed meat dumplings) are made with ground beef instead of the more traditional minced lamb. The dough is very thin, as it should be, but the big ball of ground meat inside is too lean and a bit dry. The dumplings are topped with onion and some kind of tomato sauce, and come with a tangy yogurt sauce on the side. They’re not bad, but I think they would taste better if they were juicier, and not so finely ground. And there’s no salt, of course.
The pelmeni, a Russian dish described on the menu as Russian-style ground beef dumplings, seem to me like they’ve received an Uzbek makeover. In fact, they’re very similar to the manty: same onion and tomato sauce on top, similar yogurt sauce. The dough is still soft but slightly thicker, and the meat is the same lean ground beef that lacks juice and salt. Somehow, maybe because of their smaller form factor, they taste a little bit better than the manty. I had the two side by side, so don’t call me crazy!
The lamb kebab, cooked medium well but tender, arrives with the usual chopped onion, tossed with dill. It’s not too fatty, and tastes great, save for the lack of salt. For meat lovers, it’s a good complement to the plov below!
The filet mignon kebab is exactly the same as on the beach, but the portion is larger and it comes with onion instead of the salad and rice. Still excellent. Is this the only salted dish in the restaurant?
The plov is somewhat disappointing. It’s pretty sweet because there’s so much carrot (plus there are currants, too). The meat, beef instead of the usual, more flavorful lamb, is very tender because it’s cooked for a long time, but a bit dry. The rice is overcooked and almost feels like par-cooked Uncle Ben’s, and I see spices more than I taste them. It also lacks grease for a plov (wait till I share my Tashkent pictures!). It’s tasty, but it could be better. No salt. Maybe it’s an attempt at Americanizing plov: making it blander, leaner, and sweeter?
From the specials, we’ve got success with the roasted leg of lamb with sundried apricots, cumin, and rosemary. The lamb is very very tender, very slowly roasted — or is it actually braised? The dried apricots are also very soft because they’re cooked with the meat, and the sauce seems to be made with the reduced jus. The leg is served with a side of plain rice, It’s nothing very surprising, but it’s well prepared. My only complaint is I don’t really taste the cumin.
The desserts are all listed with the specials. I was told they once offered baklava regularly, but don’t make it much any more. Instead, they prepare the excellent and extremely popular halva ice cream. Halva can be different things in different countries, but here it refers to the sesame and sugar confection as found in Uzbekistan. The sesame ice cream, topped with black and white sesame seeds and little pieces of chalky halva, has a rich texture and really tastes like halva. A pity that it melts rather fast (suggestion to the kitchen: freeze the bowl or use stabilizers), but it’s a great dessert. I admit I’m still sad about the baklava.
The sour cherry ice cream is almost as yummy, if a tiny bit too sweet. It’s not precisely an ice cream; it’s a plombir with dried cherries and some cherry sauce.
One last dessert special, served during NYC Honey Week 2015: a honey pancake. I forgot to take a picture, but that’s one large pancake, the size of a whole dessert plate. Much like the scallion pancakes, this resembles fried dough more than a typical pancake. It’s drizzled with honey, of course, and I could have used more honey (me, I’m not happy until my pancake swims in liquid sugar). Simple but delicious.
The bar doesn’t serve hard liquor, but one big surprise is that the wine by the glass is actually good. Unless you pay astronomical prices, wine by the glass in New York is generally boring. In Russian restaurants, it’s barely drinkable. But both the white and red wines I tried at Uma’s (a Riesling and a Tempranillo, respectively) were noteworthy. When was the last time I said that about a restaurant outside of Manhattan?
Waiters aren’t Uzbek but more like young locals. What this means to you is that you get very good service, helpful and personable. Not that you necessarily get bad service in restaurants in Russia or Uzbekistan, but in New York’s outer boroughs, it’s often the case. Just re-read my older reviews! The cooks in the kitchen are (or look) Uzbek, though.
Uma’s clearly has a salt problem, and, in some rarer cases, a seasoning problem. This shouldn’t keep you away, as most of the food is pretty good nonetheless (and hey, desserts don’t need salt!). With just a few tweaks, it could be truly great. Besides, Uma’s probably turns Rockaway into the only beach that can boast an Uzbek food stand outside of Russia and maybe Ukraine (assuming the former hasn’t invaded the entire coastline of the latter by the time you read this post). So give it a try. If it’s lobster rolls you want, go freeze your ass on a rainy beach in Maine instead. If you crave arepas, get yourself a passport and put your college Spanish to good use for once in your life. BBQ? Seriously, who eats that at the beach? On the other hand, you know you’ll never go to Uzbekistan (or Rego Park for that matter). Even if you do, you won’t be wearing a bathing suit.
Picks: cabbage pirozhok, lagman, filet mignon kebab, halva ice cream
Avoid: tables without salt shakers