lamb chops with roasted potatoes.[Photo by Mike Peters/China Daily]
A plate of pilaf is just the start of a homestyle Central Asian feast, Mike Peters discovers.
Even in China, it's a little surprising to hear so much fuss about a restaurant's rice dish. But ask anyone who's been to Astana, which lays claim to being Beijing's first Kazak restaurant, and you'll almost certainly get a misty-eyed rave about the pilaf.
Also known as "plov" and "pilau", this hearty rice dish is a staple in most of Central Asia. There are Russian versions, Uzbek versions, Chinese versions from the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region and a San Francisco version courtesy of Rice-a-Roni.
Astana's robust version has strong hints of cumin and chili and a satisfying amount of tender lamb chunks on top of a platter that goes for an eminently reasonable 35 yuan ($5.60).
Other starchy offerings include fried Kazak bread and the more exotic hychina flatbread, a yummy curiosity soaked in melted cheese.
We'd been advised to try the dumplings as a starter, and found the succulent steamed packages of meat and pumpkin nearly large enough to make a meal on their own. There are meat-only and vegetable-only versions as well.
As befits its location in the capital's hopping Russian district around Ritan Park - and Kazakhstan's real-life proximity to Russia - the restaurant is influenced by the neighborhood.
In fact, Astana plays that like a trump suit, deftly serving up steaming bowls of borscht - the beet soup staple of the Russian heartland - as winsome as any in town.