While our comparatively well-paid proxies jetted off to enjoy their three-day weekends in the sun, Gothamist stayed home and indulged our sorrows with what we imagined (wrongly, as it happens) would be a journey into the bleakest corners of the former Soviet Union—Vostok, a traditional Bukharian restaurant deep in the heart of Boro Park.

For the uninitiated, the term Bukharian refers to a community of Central Asian Jews originally coming out of the city of Bukhara in Uzbekistan. When the Soviet borders loosened, a rush of Bukharian Jews arrived stateside, settling mostly in Queens and localized Brooklyn neighborhoods. They brought with them a centuries-old culinary tradition that includes an eclectic range of grains, an emphasis on braised or grilled meats, kosher-inspired foods and a cache of iconic seasoning gleaned from the historic Byzantine spice routes that once traversed the area.

The cultural fiber of Bukharian cuisine is delightfully intact at Vostok, located just off the 55th street stop on the D train. We began our meal with a deep plate of plov (pilaf to the layman’s tongue) tossed with bits of carrot, chickpeas and dense hunks of slow cooked lamb. Samsas and Manti came next—buttery pastries and fist-sized dumplings respectively, each stuffed with seasoned forcemeat and softened onion. Salad Tashkent, a plate of shredded radish mixed with mayonnaise and black pepper was a mild interlude when spooned onto a heel of nigella-flecked non, baked on premises into its characteristic hub shape.

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But it was the “homemade potatoes” that made Gothamist groan with unmitigated pleasure. Easily the best thing we’ve eaten all month (though those were some fine empanadas), the fried tubers were sliced at alternating thickness, achieving a balanced texture of crunchy shaved potato against mealy flesh. The plate is topped with sautéed mushrooms and a blanket of parsley, making it a natural foil for the potent flavor of Vostok’s grilled kebabs. We loved the Lyu-Lya—ground lamb shaped on a flat metal skewer and flavored with parsley, paprika, cumin and sumac.

If Gothamist’s professionally groomed brow and relatively excellent hygiene didn’t set us apart, our sensitivity to the Bukharian beverage of choice—vodka, naturally—surely did. Vostok sells it by the 100-gram, about the size of an aperitif glass, but most patrons bring their own bottles. We did not, but after several $4 glasses of the crystalline spirit we joined our liquor-fueled brethren on the dance floor and shook it like a Haredi on Purim.

2007_02_unibrow.jpgBut it’s not all lamb and liquor at Vostok. Our expectation was that we’d be the ones carted home at the end of the night, limp with the misguided conception that we could match our waitress in shots of Stolichnaya. In fact we watched three violent tussles unfold and end with broken glassware, runny mascara (“he call her prostitute,” said a nearby diner) and ultimately a cacophony of laughter, fists pounded on tables and hands clapping as the beat marched on and the troublemakers were cast into the night.

Our inquiries as to the cause of the arguments were met with indifference. “Don’t know,” shrugged one patron. “I sell sunglasses, Prada, Gucci, Chanel, what you want?” And soon the brawls were forgotten, replaced with the meandering vocal stylings of Vostok’s house ‘band’—an aging lounge singer and his slender partner who bore the look of a gal whose ass has been pinched one too many times.

Apart from the food, which is phenomenal, Vostok’s authenticity seldom hits the mark. The ladies are draped with layers of animal pelts and nail enamel, their eyes and lips heavy with the weight of dated, sometimes grotesque pigment. There are mom jeans and unibrows, and nylon shirts shimmering under strings of twinkling Christmas lights. A drunken patron slumps over a plate of shredded carrots, her friend smiles drowsily in our direction before propping her against the wall and spinning off in the arms of a dancer in a dragon-printed oxford.

But, the windowless dining room with its plastered archways and lingering human stench offered a genuinely transporting experience, a joyful one to be sure, that Gothamist savored like the last oil-kissed grain of plov.

Vostok
5507 13th Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11219
718.437.2596

Photos by Daniel Krieger