Manalapan, NJ 07726
- Cost: $$
- Credit Cards: All Major
- Alcohol: BYO
- Parking: Public Lot
- Take Out: Yes
June 30, 2014
Find Central Asian cuisine in Central Jersey at Shirin Cafe, the only New Jersey restaurant serving Uzbek food.
When Albert and Marina Sevumyants married in the Central Asian capital of Tashkent thirty-four years ago, Marina only knew how to bake a few traditional pastries, like baklava and honey cake. Albert had learned from his father to grill meat kebabs and make some of the hearty soups and rice dishes popular in Uzbekistan, an Asian republic of the former Soviet Union. Marina quickly expanded her repertoire of traditional Uzbek, Armenian and Russian dishes, learning the recipes alongside her mother and her mother-in-law. One of the first dishes she learned how to make – borscht, the rich Ukrainian beet soup enjoyed throughout the region.
Tashkent is an ancient city on the Silk Road trade route that for centuries connected China with the Middle East. Flavors from Turkey, Persia, Afghanistan and Tibet can all be found in Uzbek cuisine. Albert and Marina’s family roots include Armenian and Jewish branches. They brought all of these food influences with them when they emigrated to the United States, and when they opened Shirin Cafe in 2007.
Shirin Cafe occupies a small storefront in the Design Center plaza. A small sign out front advertises “Uzbek & Russian cuisine.” The first thing that draws your attention upon entering the café are two large dolls in traditional wedding dress. The counter below them displays a collection of colorfully-dressed Uzbek figurines. The café can accommodate around forty people at ten tables. The dining room is simple, nothing fancy. Two televisions were tuned to Russian music videos on my visits.
Shirin Cafe is well known in the Russian-speaking communities of New Jersey, especially along the Route 9 corridor from Old Bridge to Freehold. The Sevumyants previously owned the restaurant and banquet hall Rendezvous (now Crystal Palace). While there are a number of Garden State spots serving Russian cuisine, Shirin Cafe is the only New Jersey restaurant featuring Uzbek food. Customers come from as far away as Philadelphia, Brooklyn and Queens to sample the Sevumyants’ menu. Reservations are recommended on weekends. Every time I visited, there was at least one large multi-generational group celebrating a family occasion.
The menu at Shirin Cafe reflects the varied cultural influences in the Sevumyants’ life. Russian menu items include vareniki (potato pierogi, served with carmelized onions and sour cream) and chuchvara (tiny meat dumplings, boiled or fried). Marina and Albert also serve an Armenian red bean salad with diced basturma (pastrami), fried onions, garlic and crushed walnuts; and Armenian dolma (stuffed grape leaves).
Start any meal at Shirin with a pot of Uzbek loose leaf tea, black or green, served in a brightly painted teapot and short teacups without handles, as is customary throughout Central Asia. Don’t miss the homemade Uzbek bread (non) served warm, a round flat loaf, depressed in the center and dotted with sesame seeds.
Uzbek cuisine features grilled meats, hearty soups, savory pastries and rice dishes spiced with cumin and coriander. Lamb, or traditionally mutton, dishes are common. Plov is the most popular Uzbek dish at Shirin. Similar to a Spanish paella, Uzbek rice is cooked with chunks of beef and lamb, shredded carrots, scallions and spices.
Try one of the excellent soups from Marina’s kitchen, like mastava, with fatty lamb pieces, rice and vegetables spiced with cumin. Chebureki are fried turnovers filled with juicy minced meat and onions. Order ahead for Marina’s homemade samsa – puff pastry stuffed with meat and onion, or pumpkin; and manti – large steamed lamb dumplings, which take 45 minutes to prepare.
My daughter Gabi’s jaw dropped when she saw the size of the pork kebab. Shirin’s grilled kebabs (ten different kinds, including lamb, veal liver, quail, chicken, and pork), Albert’s specialty, offer very large pieces of marinated meat grilled on impressively long metal skewers. They are served under strings of cooked onions with a tomato-based dipping sauce. (Seafood does not figure prominently in Uzbek cuisine. Uzbekistan is a landlocked country after all; the closest coastline is more than 1000 miles from Tashkent.)
Save room for Marina’s homemade pastries. The friendly servers will bring an impressive tray displaying each to help you decide among the Armenian pakhlava, a decadent kartoshka made from cocoa powder and crushed pecans (my daughter’s favorite), or the delicate honey cake from Marina’s childhood.
“Shirin,” according to Marina, is an Uzbek and Armenian word that means “sweetie” – a fitting description for this unique New Jersey restaurant, and for the couple that run it.