There's a very funny press release for the Samarqand restaurant, possibly directed at Russian and Central Asian foodies living in London. It promises, in a kind of meerkat-speak, that this is "The restaurant we've ALL been waiting for!!! SIMPLE CONCEPT which makes the restaurant even more worth going – you SIMPLY feels: at HOME AWAY FROM HOME!!!"
I'd like to meet the diners for whom this statement is true – people whose home has a 7ft-tall Taras Bulba figure standing impassively outside in Cossack garments, a ravishingly pretty Russian girl to take your coat, and a charming Asian girl called Ella to bring you Snow Queen organic wheat vodkas. Lucky home-owners is all I can say. But Samarqand does its best to offer nostalgic exiles a taste of the old country – along with dinner, it features karaoke rooms, games rooms, poker rooms and a bar. In Moscow, there's a chain of four Samarqands. By all accounts, the new London version is packed at the weekend with carousing Cossacks.
The restaurant purports to offer never-seen-before dishes "inspired by" Russian, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan cuisines, while throwing in "beautifully prepared Central Asian cuisine that offers diners the chance to experience rare, exotic and new flavors". Not so much a niche place, then, as half-a-dozen niches together. We'd come to Poly-niche-a.
Given this high-concept stuff, the room is oddly anonymous. A backlit mirror with a kaleidoscopic pattern is the only nod to exoticism. The ceiling lights resemble 1960s home-movie slide carousels. One wall is illuminated by a long, black box, lit with perspex slats, like an Uvasun lamp in a tanning parlour. My friend Tim listened with distaste to the directionless gloop on the soundtrack. "Since it's a Russian place, you'd think they'd have a bit of Rachmaninov," he observed. "Not Jean-Michel bloody Jarre."
Buoyed up by the vodka (and the girls), we inspected the menu. There was no borscht, but two kinds of aromatic lamb soup with vegetables, one of them called Shurpa (but isn't that a Himalayan mountain guide?). Two of the salads offered aubergines, one "diced potatoes" and one, suspiciously, "grilled meat dumplings". Tim's rice noodle salad with aromatic beef and spicy carrots was a bowl of translucent noodles that reeked of disappointment. "The beef isn't at all aromatic, it's actually very bland," he said, "the noodles are greasy and the carrots aren't spicy. Apart from that..."
From the oddly off-putting selection of Small Eats ("buttered red onion pie with cheese"? "Pan-fried flat meat pasty"? Nyet), I chose the Russian herring with boiled potatoes because it had the virtue of bluntness. It was terrific: pink-and-grey, nicely salted, beautifully textured, both meaty and fishy at the same time. The accompanying potatoes were four halves of peeled, boiled spud, arrayed on the plate without sophistication. It looked like lunch for a long-stay dissident in the gulag. But it tasted fine.
No question what we should have for a main course. Our plausible young waiter recommended Samarqand plov, a traditional Central Asian rice dish with succulent lamb and spices. He spoke of the wondrous tandoori pot in which it's made, the glowing coals, the lamb falling off the bone ... talk about whetting my appetite.
Then it arrived. It was a large bowl of rice, flavoured with something resembling Bovril, on which four small lumps of lamb sat disconsolately. A long, angrily hot red chilli was the only other constituent, but they threw in a tomato salad as a kind of booby prize. I summoned the plausible youth and asked where the flipping flip was the rest of my lamb. I'd been expecting, I said, a skewer-load. "In this culture," he smoothly explained, "plov is a rice dish, and is merely flavoured with the lamb..."
This waiter, we agreed, was a master at explaining his way round the most thinly defeatist, ungenerous, dull, greyly unadventurous cuisine we'd tasted in ages. Tim's manty ("steamed lamb dumplings with Asian herbs and yoghurt dressing") didn't improve things. "There's a solid lump of mince inside that's not bad if you put chilli sauce on it," he said. "But if you were offered it for school dinner, you'd think, 'Actually, I'd prefer the spam fritters'."
Puddings didn't exactly end the meal with a bang. If you don't fancy cheesecake, Zebra chocolate cake or Napoleon Cake ("it's layers of pastry," explained the plausible waiter, falteringly, "layered with, er, cream and with, on top, er, breadcrumbs"), you were stuck with ice-cream, which was perfectly OK.
Perhaps Russo-Uzbek-Kazakhstani cuisine is an acquired taste. Perhaps there's a reason why no one in the kitchen wants to flavour dishes with anything but chilli sauce or herbs-and-yoghurt. Perhaps European merchants have always gone mad for pumpkin dumplings, tasteless noodles and thumbnail-sized lamb on the Silk Road. But it's not a road I'd be keen to travel down again.
Samarqand, 18 Thayer Street, London W1 (020-7935 9393)
About £80 for two, with wine
Tipping policy: "Service charge is 12.5 per cent, of which 100 per cent goes to the staff; all tips go to the staff"