It’s been a long time since I last posted about my adventures in the Caucasus, and the Azerbaijan stories promise to be plentiful. I’d like to start this series with a quintessential Azerbaijan experience: the outdoor restaurant. This humble place, which always follows the same principles whether you’re in the mountains, arid plains, or shady forests, will indeed occupy a particular place in any visitor’s journey. This is most likely where you will eat most of the time when outside of the capital (and even in the suburbs of Baku, you can find similar garden restaurants).
The restaurant I’ve chosen to illustrate my point is located in Ordubad, in the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic. I must concede, however, that this particular place is an unlikely and quite remote lunch destination. Nakhchivan is a landlocked exclave of Azerbaijan that can practically only be reached by air. The Armenian border is closed, and most travelers are unlikely to enter from Iran or the single, very-remote crossing from Turkey. After alighting in Nakhchivan City, you must travel another hour and a half by car to reach Ordubad, the Republic’s second largest town with a whopping population of 10,000. You will then find the restaurant slightly outside of town, on a road that leads to the not-so-friendly triple point between Azerbaijan, Iran, and Armenia. The restaurant is called Şora Çeşme:
The restaurant’s tables are spread sparsely across a large garden. The furnishings are usually of the plastic variety, but some places offer more comfortable options, from the covered porch to the private wooden cabin.
There is no menu to look at, but the options are always the same: fresh vegetables with herbs, cheese, yogurt, and kebabs. In the beverage department, you can count on homemade kompot, local mineral water (Sirab), beer, and vodka. You might also ask for tutovka, home-made mulberry brandy. Though illegal, it’s still widely available if you’re willing to insist just a little bit. Here is the appetizer table:
The kebabs are coming! The star of the show is the lyulya-kebab, a moist mixture of ground lamb. As I’ve mentioned in the past, making a good lyulya-kebab is not that easy. However, in Azerbaijan — the dish’s birthplace — they’ve mastered the art. You can sometimes order chicken or beef kebabs, but lamb will often be the only meat available, either in chunks or as chops (called antrikot). If you love fat, try the fatty tail (kurdyuk) if available — it’s delicious! The grilled eggplants, tomatoes, and peppers aren’t bad either.
If you choose to finish your meal with tea, it’s still common to be brought a charcoal-heated samovar like this one. Tea can be served with traditional accompaniments such as preserves, candied fruits, nuts, and pakhlava.
Time to visit the kitchen. Meet the chef:
Here’s the mangal, where the chef’s making lyulya-kebab. Notice that the grilling is done without a grill plate, over very low heat. Most of the coals are half-consumed, and a pot of water is there to pour over the coals, slowing down the cooking. How many NYC Health Department violation points can you count in this picture? 😉
The indoor kitchen consists primarily of a single counter occupied by the meat grinder — there is indeed not a lengthy preparation process for this food.
There’s also an adjacent indoor dining room, which, predictably, doesn’t see much action during summertime. Check out the kebab presentation tray for dramatic service! Hot charcoals are usually inserted in the center. By the way, if you want to get some of this stuff in New York, this web site offers grills and accessories. I believe they also take custom orders, as they make everything themselves. (“If you can dream it in stainless steel, bring your dream to us and we will bring it to life!“)
So there you have it: the Azerbaijani outdoor restaurant experience. If you don’t have a chance to venture all the way to Ordubad, Nakhchivan City also has some nice garden restaurants. In other parts of Azerbaijan, I would recommend the forest area on the western outskirts of Quba, where many places also offer rustic accommodation, and the road between Shamakhi and Ismayilli, in case you plan to visit Lahic.
Next time, I’ll talk about the long journey to Nakhchivan — nest of spies!