Last Friday two friends and I headed to an Uzbek restaurant south of Sanlitun, in between the Tuanjiehu and Hujialou stations. It's called Shash and the dining experience was more than we expected.
The restaurant can be hard to find, but luckily it's next to the Saint Angel Hotel otherwise we'd be lost in a maze of apartment blocks tucked away from the Third Ring Road. The restaurant has an impressive building facade, made with brick with an intricate design that has an Arabic influence.
Then inside you walk into a cavernous two-storey place, complete with a stage and an upstairs dining/viewing area, like dinner theatre complete with balconies held up with fake columns verging on gaudiness.
The strange thing is that for a Friday night the place was not very busy, the first floor practically empty, and then upstairs a few private rooms taken. The waitress explained that the non-smoking area was next to the private rooms, but the patrons of the private rooms usually smoke, so she suggested we sit in the smoking area on the other side of the room. Huh? Why not put the smoking area with the private rooms?
Nevertheless we sit down with a good view looking down at the stage and admire the ceiling which again has an intricate Arabic star design in colours that seem fanciful in purple, turquoise, white, yellow and gold.
The menu is quite extensive and it turns out Uzbek cuisine is very similar to Xinjiang and Shash also happens to be a halal restaurant.
The food is... OK, the Uzbek dumplings had very thick skins -- this isn't Din Tai Fung -- and the kebabs, both lamb and fish are alright, nothing you can't get anywhere else. However, the pumpkin baozi, or giant steamed buns, but were actually like dumplings were pretty good.
We ordered a rice pilaf which was quite delicious, with beef and tomato mixed with rice with raisins and a kind of white bean, very similar to a Xinjiang dish. The Greek salad was a small serving with small cubes of feta, cucumber, tomato and black pitted olives. There was also an appetizer of roasted eggplant topped with finely diced garlic, a slice of tomato garnished with chopped parsley.
By the time we started eating the "Uzbek culture show" began with live music generated from two guys, one having his scraggly hair pulled back into a small ponytail. They didn't really perform Uzbek music because some of them were Chinese songs a la Teresa Teng.
But then the lights dimmed and lively music came on... and a bellydancer came out -- with a candelabra with lit candles -- on her head.
She jiggled and wiggled her body to the music without letting her head move. People from the private rooms came out to watch the spectacle of flesh-baring costumes. It didn't seem quite Uzbek to me.
That was not all, as another woman came out doing more bellydancing, this time thankfully minus the candles.
The Chinese men were either oggling at the dancers or filming it on their cellphones; Chinese women recorded it as well, probably wondering if they could copy the moves to spice up things in the bedroom.
It was such a strange choice of entertainment, jarring with our expectations that we quickly left the restaurant -- or fled -- during the musical interlude before the dancers came back again.
My friend calls it the "Uzbek Hooters place" and I have to agree.
10 Xiangjun Beili, 4th alley next to Saint Angel Hotel