Turkish Breakfasts of Bishkek

If we were to hold an international competition of delicious breakfast spreads it’s hard to say which would win – Cantonese dim sum or Turkish breakfasts.

Most American cities have at least one dim sum dive; few offer anything close to authentic Turkish breakfast – which is a shame, because Turkish breakfast done well is a wonderful creation.

Turkish breakfasts will vary in composition by season and region.  Most have an assortment of the following: fresh white cheese, yellow cheese, eggs or omelet (with or without sucuk – the Turkish garlic sausage) or menemen (scrambled eggs with peppers and tomatoes), bread, green and black olives, sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, and fresh bread.  Honey and kaymak (fresh clotted cream) are also common, as is gözleme, homemade jams, and börek or other types of small pastries.  Breakfast is always served with small cups of black tea.

The best Turkish breakfast I’ve ever tasted was at Ak Koy – a tiny whitewashed farming hamlet some 20 kilometers inland from Didim on the Aegean coast.  In early September the low tables and cushioned seats are spread outside under a billowing white canopy as chickens run around the perimeter, smells from the late harvest mingle with the salt in the air and fresh frying garlic sausage from the open kitchen at the back.  All we eat comes from the village – or the restaurant’s farm itself – and the feast usually comes to a grand total of 15 TL (~$5) per person.  Alas, Bishkek has no Ak Koy Turkish breakfast…

 

Above: essentials of a good Turkish breakfast: omelets, plenty of vibrant vegetables, various types of fresh cheese, and gözleme.

Bishkek also doesn’t have any rendition of dim sum (sob!), but there are a few places offering different variations of Turkish breakfast – not all of equal quality.  The four joints currently serving Turkish breakfast are: Beta Stores – Beta Gourmet, Park Cafe (Erkindik/Kievskaya), Sofra 2 (Kievskaya), and Relax Cafe.

We’ve eaten at all, but to look at their clientele during peak hour is also quite telling:
Park Cafe is full of businessmen, friends and family who come for full meals or leisurely breakfasts that stretch into the early afternoon – because the food is good. As a bonus, the kitchen is clean and the wait staff will actually remember you – because the same staff stay year after year. The restaurant offer two types of Turkish breakfast: the standard “plate” with a minimal assortment of cheese, olives, vegetables and a hardboiled egg for 250 som, and the a-la-carte country Turkish breakfast with baskets of steaming bread, tea, fresh kaymak and honey, several types of cheese, olives, eggs and sucuk, and small pastries for about 500 som a person depending on number of people and what you order.  Go for the a-la-carte – it’s the most complete spread and closest thing to real Turkish breakfast in Bishkek.
I don’t have a photo of their Turkish breakfasts, but this capture of a chicken shish kebab and simit kebab should be evidence enough.
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On weekend mornings Sofra 2 is full of male Turkish students who pile their plates high at the breakfast buffet – because the food is cheap and plentiful (but not especially good).  You can order off the menu or go for the ‘breakfast buffet’, which is a mere 250 som for unlimited plate fillings from a banquet table ladden with meats, eggs, breads, cheeses, olives, pastries, and some odd Russian salads. In the past year we’ve gone there once each for dinner with a friend (who several months later died of a heart attack only hours after finishing another late dinner at Sofra 2….), a company-sponsored Ramadan fast-breaking dinner, a post-wedding dinner given by a young Kyrgyz worker for all his colleagues, and the breakfast buffet.  The food has never been wonderful – i’d give it a 2 out of 10 and recommend you steer clear, unless you have the indifferent appetite of an adolescent male.
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Cafe Relax is full of expats and pairs of friends or expats meeting over coffee or tea or taking a break for lunch – because the presentation and service is good and the menu ranges from giant platters American classics (generously sized sandwiches) to breakfasts and sweets. Few people come for the Turkish breakfast, which is a bit pricey (at 450 or 500 som for a plate), but delicately made and nicely presented if not quite sumptuous.
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And Beta Gourmet is…just terrible. While two years ago it was hard to find a seat on Sunday mornings, it’s now almost empty.  Prices are the same as Park Cafe at 250 som/plate.  Forgetting how terrible it had become this morning we headed over for breakfast before bazaar wandering and grocery shopping.  Considering that the owners also have a grocery store on the ground floor one might expect fresh produce.  But no – the cheese tasted like it had sat in the back of the fridge for a week, the butter was cheap, the meat cuts looked suspiciously like spam, the ‘fresh-baked’ lavash (bread) had a hint of mold and a texture like leather, and all the vegetables were basically dead.  Not to mention that the waitstaff was too busy eating at the service bar to pay their only customers any attention and…. (eugh) after making and serving E’s fresh-pressed orange juice one of the waitresses actually took the container that she had poured the orange juice left and drank the rest of the orange juice…in full sight of us, and straight out of the container.  Will. not. go. back. again.  If you want to fortify yourself before checking out the soviet second-hand bazaar along Karl Marx (a wonderful Sunday morning stroll), then the nearby Adriano Coffee is probably a better choice for breakfast. IMG_3413
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5 am Bishkek Eats

We’ve all been on that flight, the one that comes in from the crowded holding grounds of the Istanbul Airport at 3am. It’s  3 pm or 11 pm where you came from, your head is still slightly spinning and you haven’t had a breath of fresh air for half a day.  Maybe the friends you’re staying with aren’t yet up, or you’re tired of eating cellophane-wrapped food and don’t want to head home to an empty fridge. Or you’re driving back from a datcha, or stayed out late for a birthday bash and the hunger pangs have suddenly struck.  Most of Bishkek will start waking long after the sun peaks over the apartment rooftops, but here are 3 joints to satisfy your 5 am (or 3 am, or any odd hour) food cravings:

1. Taksim Cafe (Chuy and Kalyk Akibev – one block E from Jash Gvardiya)

This is  the late night burrito bar of Bishkek: cheap, reliable, and open 24 hours a day, not to mention on the way from the airport and within walking distance of several clubs.  Menu is a mix of Russian, Kyrgyz and Turkish fare.

Go for the plentiful outdoor seating and warming homestyle soups. The omelets are also not bad. As a bonus, the outdoor garden also has an artificial stream and tacky-cute bridges.  Just don’t sit inside – as only partially evident from this photo, the decor is enough to give you Madonna nightmares for decades:

Worth Visting During the Day? Eh…

Bonus: This vertigo-inducing 1 minute intro video put out by the management

 

20140418-183706.jpg2. Cave Coffee (Gorkova, 1 block E of Vefa Center)

The perfect place to relax after a long flight and wait for your hotel to open/your couchsurfing guests to wake up/your friends to come and get you, this simple cafe is both sumptuous and serene.  Prices that are normally a little high for Bishkek will seem a genuine bargain after airport food court rip-offs.

Go for the calm and quiet atmosphere, comfortable couches, coffee, tea and desserts.  If you’re on a budget, the tea is fairly inexpensive and always very fresh.  While I don’t think they have a full kitchen, they do also pull together good Russian classics like blinis with fresh fruit toppings.

Worth Visting During the Day? Yes, for coffee and desserts.  It’s also a great place to hold meetings when the electricity on your office goes out)

3. Cafe-Bistro Moskva (Razzakov, 1 block N of Bokonbaev)

If you’re absolutely new to Bishkek and starving after a half day’s journey, this slick soho-style not-so-soviet canteen is probably the best place to go.  A clean, spacious and top-class take on the soviet-era stolovaya (canteen), Cafe Moskva lets you survey all the samplings of Russian and Kyrgyz fare before selecting your favoured plate.  If you’renew to Kyrgyzstan and don’t understand anything on the menus, this is a great way to figure out what’s on offer and see what you might like.

Prices are certainly higher than those at classic canteens but lower than in a restaurant – almost everything on the menu (pdf here) is under 100 som.  And unlike a regular stolovaya, nobody is impatient, unless it’s lunch hour at the nearby embassies.

Go for the wide variety of local food, clean and expedient presentation, and fresh-pressed espresso at the adjoining cafe.

Worth Visting During the Day? Yes, definitely – for a simple but satisfying meal, or newbies to the Central Asia food scene.

Taking Advantage of the Summer Scene: Bishkek

A few weeks ago one of our Turkish guest noted something that I’ve since noticed everywhere: while Bishkek has these long, beautiful stretches of park, very few businesses take advantage of the city’s outdoors.  There are few shops lining the parks that spill their wares onto the sidewalks or even fling open their doors (actually, there are comparatively few shops at all lining the parks).  There are few restaurants or cafes with streetside patio or garden seating.  Of course, the man who mentioned this is an Istanbul businessman, a character who calculated potential profit in everything, in a warm-hearted way.

Eskisehir outdoor cafe

Us, stopping for tea outside in Eskisehir, where temps plunged to negative ten

I’ve always thought or Bishkek as having outdoor cafes – at least compared to Chinese cities, garden cafes here are many.  But since he said that I have noticed the lack while walking around the city.  While there is great potential, there really are few spaces with truly comfortable outdoor spaces. Perhaps this is partially due to the lack of street life I’ve noticed generally in post-soviet cities. Perhaps this is partially due to the winter weather. But even in Eskisehir – in the cold Anatolian heartland – cafes keep their patios open year round, kept functional with the addition of outdoor heat lamps or roll-back roofs and slidable paneled glass walls (if you haven’t seen these, see what I’m talking about here). Like over-the-door hooks, this seems to be one of those things so common in Turey that has failed to make its way across the steppe.

Instead the shops cluster along busy streets while the two longest parks are lined with… a few shops, salons, housing, closed-faced offices, and ancient government buildings. But cafes beckoning with outdoor seating are few. Cafes or restaurants with any really nice outdoor seating are actually few.  Perhaps this is also because temps above 25 are often deemed “too hot”, and locals would rather be inside with the AC.  But I like balconies and terraces and patios and gardens, especially when surrounded by sufficient greenery.  So, while I’m still searching for the perfect place, I thought I might share a few venues I’ve found that are near-perfect for enjoying the cool summer eves outdoors:

barashek

Barashek

Restaurants:

  • Old Edgars: Located in the park and shaded by centuries-old-oaks; what more could you ask for?  Almost everything on the menu is at least decent, and prices are not scandalous.  Go for a meal, chat, drinks or work.
  • Furusato: This quaint, clean and enthusiastic Japanese joint has a serene, albeit small, outdoor seating area.
  • Cyclone: Our fall-back Italian joint has nice summer outdoor seating somewhat separated from the street by a trellise. (my review here)
  • Barashek: Plentiful outdoor seating with a nice open air garden feel.

Cafes and Cafe-Restaurants:

  • Coffee Cafe (Togolok Moldo 40/1): The branch on Manas has eh outdoor seating often covered in clouds of putrid smoke.  This one just north of the Russian cinema has a nice wooden porch jutting out over greenery and is surprisingly quiet for being located close to the center.  A good place to work during the week.
  • Sushi Room (formerly “Cafeteria”): One of only two establishments along the Erkindik Park to offer outdoor seating; shaded and cosy; everything is a bit overpriced.
  • Slim Fit BishkekSlim Fit: The other establishment with outdoor seating on Erkindik; healthy food, helpful waitstaff, and looks like it popped out of a sunnier Portland, OR.
  • The string of shashlik places south of Aaly Tokombaev and East of Victory Park (look for the ferris wheel): Go for the beer/tea and the bountiful outdoor seating; let me know if you find one serving decent food.
  • Vanilla Sky: Small open patio on one side, glassed in ‘sunroom’ on the other (so you can kind of sit outside in winter).  I’d go for the coffee rather than the dessert or food.
  • Navigator Bar/Cafe: Seriously overpriced with no aparent justification (a bottle of water will set you back as much as coffee at most similarly-decorated places), but it does have one of Bishkek’s only garden seating areas.
  • Buddha Bar: I hate Buddha Bar.  But it does have nice outdoor seating in the corner of a park on Sovietskaya and Axunbaeva.
  • Bar 12: Not just a bar!  The patio is also open for drinks/dessert/dinner and offers perhaps the only panoramic view of the city.

Also, Marius (on Chuy) looks promising, though I have yet to visit.

Let me know if there are any places I missed – I would also love to find some new summer spots (especially some place I could do work during the day!).

Isn’t This A Bit Basic? Restaurant Service in Bishkek

I know Kyrgyzstan doesn’t have a long history of service-oriented restaurants.  But still – twenty-four years should be enough to figure out the basics.  Which some restaurants have –  Barashek, Sierra Cafe, Adriano Coffee, Park Cafe, Cyclone and others are shining examples in customer-oriented experience.  But then there are some establishments with service so bad you wonder if the waiters are trying to drive customers away.  So dear other half of Kyrgyz restaurants – here’s some simple advice: don’t run your restaurant to make money; run it to make return customers.  If you really want a successful business, then you need to create a positive image associated with your brand name and a loyal clientele.  And you create a loyal clientele by giving them a positive experience.

What do I mean?

First, Customers come first.  We’re the reason you have a restaurant, right?  We shouldn’t have to wander around looking for the waitstaff, or walk into the kitchen just to get our bill.  Make use feel like you actually care about our presence.

Second, Be upfront about any changes.  Don’t have something that someone ordered?  Tell them upfront instead of bringing something they didn’t order, and assuming that they should pay for it/telling them “this is how we do it here”/informing them that their knowledge of this food is wrong. Assume responsibility for mistakes; the customer is not wrong because you are out of lemons/grapes/whatever or your espresso machine is broken.  Furthermore, if a price has changed from what is on the menu, tell them before they finalize their order. Continue reading

Orman Jan: 80’s Disco is Alive!

Stop reading this restaurant review now if you have no intention of ever visiting an establishment where middle-aged matrons hefting over 100 kg still shake it to Gangnam Style.  If you missed the first wave two years back, or still harbor nostalgia for music to grow mullets, read on.

Saturday evening we met up with a couple and their kid at Orman Jan (Орман джан), a Kyrgyz resto-dance located right behind [the far superior] Barashek.  If you aren’t yet familiar with the Central Asian resto-disco they’re basically a restaurant outfitted with a dance floor, a DJ, disco balls and strobe lights.  Patrons come, eat, and dance between dishes.  Coming from China two years ago this was a shock – in China all non-classical and non-Chinese pop is viewed with irascible suspicion by the older generations.  I’ve haven’t come across more than a handful of Chinese over forty who would even listen to – much less boogie to – Western hits.  But here every aged ass shakes (literally).

So – Orman Jan…let’s be honest: the service was actually good, the prices were relatively inexpensive (salads for 100-200 som, kebabs for 130-190, soups for 100-150, steaks for 400-500, most drinks under 100), but the food itself poorly represented the local culinary repertoire.  Bland salads, stringy kebabs that tasted like they came from an old sheep. We actually left an entire kebab untouched, still on the skewer.  If you want real food and oh-so-tender-still-pink-meat, go to Barashek next door.

But if you’re coming for a style of entertainment found only in Central Asia, and don’t have time to hit up the small-town clubs, then it is pretty choice.  Duran Duran, Men Without Hats, Bollywood hits, technofied Kyrgyz folk songs, the Macarena (for which everyone knew all the words, but only one little girl actually had down the moves), Russian songs sang with gusto, and, of course, Gangnam Style.  Apart from our party us the patrons were almost all women – a dozen women in their mid-to-late late twenties accompanied by their young kids who seemed to be there for a birthday party, and five women pushing the upper bar of middle age (and the upper end of the scale) dancing with utmost abandon.  And yes, they all knew all the moves to gangam style, from the five year old kids who ran around chasing the strobe lights between sets, to a pregnant woman in heels, to the older group of Kyrgyz women with greying and curled hair and heavy gold jewelry. I suppose it’s the Kyrgyz equivalent of Square Dancing in the US, before our post-dinner dancing became so age-segregated some fifty, sixty years back.

So, the basics:

Location: Right behind Barashek, off of Aaly Tokombayeva at the turn to the 11th Microrayon

Prices: About 300-600 som/person for a full dinner; 40 som/person charged for the music

Perks: Outdoor seating, outdoor playground for kids, 80’s disco dancing, decent service; BONUS: there’s a roaming restaurant photographer, just in case you ever wanted glossy photographic proof that you did the congo in Kyrgyzstan

Recommended: Not for the food, but if you like to disco…

Cosmo Park Restaurant Reviews

Almost every week we head over to Beta 2 or Orto Sai Bazaar at least once for weekly grocery shopping, or for a dinner when we don’t want to battle the downtown traffic.  The problem is though that there aren’t many decent restaurants in the area.  There’s Barashek by the 11th Microdistrict for kebabs and fancier fare (or just overstuffed interiors), Adriano Coffee for a Portland-esque escape, but all of the places we used to frequent have either closed their doors (like the open air Brazilian restaurant) or grown steadily worse over the years (like the Beta 2 restaurant).  So this year we decided to try some new fare.

aroma 2
A few weeks ago we stopped by Aroma Pizza right outside of Cosmo Park.  Considering that this is a chain restaurant and has ‘pizza’ in the name, I thought it was going to be terrible.  It wasn’t.  The service was prompt and courteous, the food was fresh, and the prices were decent. We ordered two kebabs and two salads.  For a franchise, the kebabs were even better than those at Barashek – juicy, tender, just a tinge spicy.  Our vitamin salad was flavorful and light; the mango and chicken salad came out with… honey-glazed ham and canned peaches on a bed of spinach with a bit too much oil.  But other than that, everything was absolutely fine.  Our bill for food and drinks for two came out to 1100 som after service – not bad. It’s not a ‘prime restaurant’, but we’d definitely go there again for an outdoor dinner, or before catching a film at the ‘English Movie Club’ at Cosmopark (finally some films not dubbed in Russian!).

This past Thursday we tried out another new Cosmopark-area offering: the “Black Rabbit Bar“.  We’d stepped in the one on Kievskaya before and had an awful experience – bad waitstaff, everlong waits for anything, cheap decorations, a ‘cappuccino’ that tasted like it came from the vending machine in a hospital waiting room.  But – new venue, new staff, right? Anyway, the top floor terrace seating looked too appealing, so we decided to give it a go.

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Bishkek Restaurant Review: Barashek

Summer Seating – picture form their website

Barashek translated as “lambling” I was told.  It’s also a sprawling restaurant complex in the 11th Microdistrict, southwest of Beta 2 where Kutubaev intersects with Aaly Tokombaev (map here).

Despite being quite literally on the edge of the city, the 11th microdistrict is a pleasant, soviet-planned neighborhood with a warren of old apartments, shops and restaurants nestled among the tall green trees directly facing a park with a ferris wheel and a half-dozen shashlik houses that open outdoors in summer.  Usually the shashlik isn’t very good, but the Arpa on tap is fresh and, for Bishkek, the setting couldn’t be better.  Continue reading

Quick Cafe Review: Adriano Coffee

Adriano Coffee (at least four Bishkek locations – проспект Мира 29, Исанова 87, пр Чуй 127, and now just South of Beta 2) isn’t as popular as Sierra, probably because the prices are a bit higher (and there’s automatically added 15% gratuity).  But I still head there quite often, especially when I want to do work.  Why?

First, because the coffee is delicious.  They roast their own beans – you can actually watch them roasting their coffee on the second floor of the Karl Marx St. branch – and have a superior espresso machine. I’ve literally never had a bad cup of coffee. So yes, I will pay $2.20 for a great cappuccino.

According to E, they also have fairly good fare.  The offerings are fairly standard for Bishkek cafes – hamburgers, club sandwiches, soups, salads, desserts – but everything we’ve ordered was done well, presented nicely, and was not inordinately expensive (150-350 som for entrees)

Second, because they have glassed-off, completely closed smoking areas, which is more than I can say for most Bishkek cafes (or restaurants, or malls or…anywhere).

Third: because Adriano is less popular, their wifi works great.  At Sierra there are sometimes so many people that the wifi crawls like a small snail with gum stuck to it’s shell.  Websites crash.  Pictures fail to load. Not here.  Also, it’s quiet (not something I can say for Sierra’s ‘conference rooms’ where young Kyrgyz college kids will often play youtube videos or listen to music sans headphones.

And last: the space.  Especially with the new branch south of Beta 2 the cafes have comfortable chairs, tall exposed industrial ceilings, lots of nice woodwork, and a Portland-esqu vibe.  It’s a great atmosphere to work without interruption.

Little Practicalities:

Go for: The coffee! Desserts, light lunches/dinners/a break from walking around, dates, getting work done

English: Bilingual menus, some of the servers speak English

Hours: Three brances are open 8am-11pm, one 24 hours

Bishkek Restaurant Review: Park Cafe

You won’t find this Turkish standby in any of the Bishkek guides, but Park Cafe is definitely our go-to joint for Turkish cuisine.

Simit (bulgur and lamb) kebab with thyme and savory pepper

Some prices are a little higher than the Turkish places in the malls, and the decour is standard, but the food is clean and well-prepared, service is prompt and friendly, our bill has never been off,  they have daily specials with discount prices, and the tandoor meat. Tender. Fresh. Juicy. Melts in your mouth. They also have great kebabs, good soup and fırın sütlaç (oven-made rice pudding), year-round fresh green salad, crisp lahmacun and a great breakfast spread.  On weekends they provide a full Turkish breakfast spread all day – go with a few friends and split a table full of food.  Portions are man-sized and we rarely finish.

Arguably Bishkek’s Best Turkish Breakfast Spread. This is half the setting for two people.

Recommended Dishes: 

– The Soups are always good (especially the lentil – mercimen corbasi); around 100 som for a full portion, 70 for half

– For fresh salad, try the Corban Salatasi (sheperd’s salad), Mevsim Salatisi (Seasonal Salad) or Yesil Salatisi (Green salad); all about 100 som

– For breakfast, the Türk kahvaltısı (Turkish breakfast spead) is delicious (but a little pricey at 500 som/person); if on a budged, the menemen (which comes with lavash) and omelets are still very good, or you can go for the simple breakfast plate (around 250)

lahmacun

– If hungry, try the tandoor kebab with yogurt. Savory-sweet tandoor-oven slow-roasted mutton over a fragrant bed of rice is perfectly complimented by a spoonfull of sour handchurned yogurt. (450 som)

– To try something Turkish that we don’t often have in the west, go for the (abovepictured) simit kebab (300 som?) or lahmacun (200-250 som)

– If you want something a little lighter, they also make great chicken kebabs  with vegetable garnish (~250 som).

 

Practicalities:

Location: Erkindik and Kievskaya (on the ‘railroad park’, one block south of Chuy), next to a Begemont

Languages: Menu is in Turkish and Russian, but has ample pictures.  Waitstaff speak Turkish, Kyrgyz and Russian.  Most of the clientele seem to be either Turkish or local.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen another non-Turkish foreigner in there.

Price Range: Medium; around 300-500 som/person for a full meal (soup, salad, beverages, main course)

Does not serve: alcohol

Great for: Food. And watching Kral pop music videos.  There always seem to be a few tables of people discussing business in the restaurant. Go. Eat. You will not regret.