Moving up in the world
Anyone who has been paying even half attention to the nation’s restaurant scene over the past few years knows that Austin continues to be a culinary hotspot, with an elite group of restaurants garnering regular attention from publications like the New York Times and Food & Wine.
But despite all the acclaim, one question has continued to dog us: we have world-class restaurants, but are we a world-class food city?
Until recently, that question would be answered with an unqualified no. Most of what put Austin on the map was relegated to one sector — a handful of New American restaurants like Emmer & Rye and June’s All Day that appeal to a certain moneyed crowd. Those restaurants undoubtedly deserve attention, but a world-class culinary scene isn’t made on just one level.
For too long our international offerings were little more than an afterthought. The mom-and-pop restaurants that make cities like San Francisco and Houston such dynamic places to eat don't have the same presence in Austin. That was in part due to Austin’s lack of diversity — those small eateries in large part serve immigrant populations — but perception played a key role. For decades, the city's food scene was synonymous with Tex-Mex and tacos, a problem that still persists to this day.
But one of the most heartening trends of the last few months is that more restaurateurs are taking the risk of opening concepts focused on global kitchen traditions. The latest eatery to join the world party is Uzeat, which opened in the former location of Seoulfood at 8650 Spicewood Springs Rd. early in January 2018. The concept is the first for owner Ahror Rahmedov, whose family runs the operation from the front to the back.
Uzbek cuisine is similar to Turkish cuisine, heavily employing grains and mutton. The restaurant doesn’t stray too far from that mold, carrying many of the country’s classics like national dish palov (a rice dish similar to pilaf) and shurpa (a beef soup swimming with various veggies). It’s not plated with particular finesse, and will likely escape the class of Austin eaters concerned with being seen at the hottest spots. But for those who dine for the pleasure of discovery, there is much to like.
As the restaurant finds its groove during these opening weeks, Uzeat has been experimenting with its offerings. A table near the entrance features a few treats that may or may not be added to the rotation. I forgot to note the name dishes, but one was a pocket shaped similarly to a Totino’s pizza roll and the other a sort of flat empanada — both stuffed with a spice meat mixture. The kitchen seemed to be working somewhat on the fly. While waiting on our order, we were brought a sample of an eggplant roll filled with dill and cream cheese — a standout that will hopefully get pride of place on the final menu.
Other menu highlights include lamb, beef, or chicken shashlik (skewered and grilled cubed meat served with grilled vegetables), shurpa (a beef soup), and pirojki (fried buns stuffed with halal beef or veggies). Manti, steamed dumplings filled with halal lamb and served with sour cream and a mild pepper sauce, were particularly enticing, as were delicately spiced ground beef stuffed crepes.
Although the restaurant does not have a liquor license, they do offer a variety of non-alcoholic beverages like iced or hot green and black teas, freshly squeezed lemonade, soft drinks, and cranberry raspberry mors — a Russian drink made by simmering berries in honeyed water.
As with many international eateries, the dining room in this strip mall space is spare. A few silk floral arrangements are scattered across the dining room, and a television shows music videos on one wall. But Austin diners can see Carrara marble and brass fixtures practically anywhere. What they can’t get is the variety that makes a city vibrant and alive.
Rahmedov and his team are learning. There are some dishes that do not lend themselves as readily to a commercial kitchen as they do to the home. The cooks still seem to be questioning just how assertively they should use spice. I suspect those things will tighten in the upcoming weeks. Regardless, it still invigorates our food scene, which has felt static even as more and more restaurants compete for an Austinite’s buck.
As Austin's buzz wears on, we will continue to need more of these passion projects — and a reminder: you can’t ascend to being a world-class class culinary scene by forgetting the “world” part.