The definition of “dumpling” is as elastic as the dough that forms one. Manti, a kind of dumpling that has its own matrix of sub-types, are cooked from Turkey to central Asia. At Cafe Chenar, a Bukharian restaurant in north Phoenix, manti resemble Shanghainese soup dumplings in aspect and dough texture. They even arrive in bamboo baskets.
Lift the light lid.
Steam rushes out, plumes.
Four lemon-sized dough purses now show, twirled and seamed along the top, bottoms lumpy with filling.
They contain chopped ribeye and onions. Lots of onions. Owner Natan Uvaydov says that back home in Uzbekistan, steamed manti are usually dipped in sour cream. But his newest restaurant is kosher and can’t serve meat with dairy, so manti flank a ramekin of tomato sauce. They have a subtle casing and a succulent interior. Sauce? You don’t need either.
Cafe Chenar extols the mighty range of “dumpling.” They come in Asian, European, Russian, and Jewish forms.
They come pan fried, deep fried, steamed, and in soups. They are manti, pelmeni, and hanum. All together, they are a tiny dumpling apotheosis.
But before we get further into dumplings — a pillar of Cafe Chenar, but by no means the solitary focus — we need to start with why so many forms have found shape on a single menu. The answer lies in that the Uvaydov family moved to Phoenix, after a pit stop in New York, from Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan is a country in central Asia. It touches Afghanistan, reaches its spade-shaped eastern border to within 100 miles of China, and looks west across the Caspian Sea at Russia. The old Silk Road threads a few of its cities. In Uzbekistan, a largely Muslim country of desert and arid grasslands, a country roughly the size of California, Far East, Middle East, and Europe have mingled.
This neck of central Asia is home to a Jewish sub-group with ancient roots. It is in this tradition, the Bukharian Jewish tradition, that Natan Uvaydov and his mother, Mazel, the chef, operate Cafe Chenar.
There are Asian touches: kimchi, bamboo serving baskets, sesame oil to brown beef for plov.
There are European flourishes: Italian olive oil, dumplings’ cousin to pierogi, tomato sauce.
There are heavy Russian influences: pelmeni (more dumplings!), cornish hen tabaka.
There are Middle Eastern standouts: hummus, a dozen kebabs.
But seen from another angle, most of this food is simply Bukharian.
Cafe Chenar is the Uvaydov family’s third restaurant in metro Phoenix, home since 1997. They also run LaBella Pizzeria and Restaurant in Phoenix and Kitchen 18 in Scottsdale. Like the other two, Cafe Chenar is kosher.
The small, square-shaped eatery softly hums with life, the service kind, the music instrumental. Three menorah candles burned on a recent Chanukkah night, and Sufganiyot, the holiday’s jelly doughnut, was an option for dessert.
Cold starters are simple. Hummus is airy to the point of tasting whipped, and yet creamy, with just some tahini, a dusting of za’atar, and green olive oil pooled in lips and valleys. Bojon, a thick garlicky heap of melted eggplant with smoky notes from a skin-charring, is another clean starter. Both are ripe for house-baked bread. (Fatir is a nice sidekick. This onion bread, tall and record-shaped, has a bronze surface and a spongy interior with folds like ribbon candy.)
Apart from cold starters, which arrive at lightning speed, there’s no point in labeling dishes as starters or entrees. It all rolls out helter-skelter: hard, fast and randomly.
Pivoting to hot food, we re-enter the domain of the dumpling.
An order of chuchvara brings pan-fried pelmeni, thin wheat dough enrobing beef. These dumplings, somewhere between ravioli and pierogi, have a thick, steel-browned skin that leaks grease onto ceramic plates with sapphire patterns. The beef filling the quarter-sized pelmeni has a straightaway, soothing richness.
An even better dumpling is the hanum. Picture a dough frisbee an inch thick. Picture that dough filled with potato. Remove the frisbee’s center with a circular cookie cutter, fill the void with a ramekin of sambal, and smother the dough circle from noon to midnight with a chunky tomato sauce that is mostly sauteed onions.
This is the hanum. It is cushiony and sweet, pasta-like and brilliant.
Cafe Chenar offers a few savory hand pies. They are priced at just a few dollars, creating a false expectation of smallness. A meat pie shaped like a seashell (samsa) and baked in a brick oven crackles as you bite in, yielding a hearty blend of onions and ground beef. Piroshki, fried dough stuffed with potato, has a shell like a savory doughnut. It’s pillowy with a hint of grease and more gentle hypnotism than you think can fit in fried puff pastry.
In this family-run restaurant with contemporary light fixtures and deliberately faded beige and aquamarine walls that feel like grandness vanished, kebabs rock.
Sweetbreads line a flat steel skewer, impaled. They not only have a texture like scallops but seem to have a briny quality that barely registers on perception’s rim, undertow to a more salient impression of land-based salt. Another kebab, a torpedo of ground chicken (lulya), has far more juiciness and flavor than it should. (Uvaydov says this is from added fat. He wouldn’t say what kind.)
The best kebab I tried was lamb rib. The ribs have been sawed to pieces. By bits of bone the skewer runs, passing through flesh rubbed with a marinade containing cumin, paprika, and coriander before sizzling on a hickory charcoal grill until meat turns the color of chocolate. You have to rip in with your teeth, steady the chunk in question with your slippery hands. Jiggly fat seems to outgun muscle. These lamb ribs have a darkly symphonic, primal flavor.
Plov, one of Uzbekistan’s best-known dishes, rises from cerulean-filigreed ceramic as a molded crown of rice, carrots and beef the jewels. The beef is shank and (more!) rib eye. Carrots are fully imbued with the essence of stewed meat. The dish is simple and hearty.
From hard pressing on the grill, cornish hen looks pancaked. Charcoal goodness layers the crackly, brown-and-black skin of the tiny bird like an invisible, dusky glaze. It is tender to the bone, but at $19 you could have yourself a trio of kebabs for the cost of a lilliputian bird that’s a pain to slice apart.
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Desserts weren’t special beyond the joy of getting a holiday-themed dessert during its holiday. Chak chak, fried coils of dough compressed almost like a Rice Krispies treat, sure won’t alter your destiny. Sufganiyot were simple and down the middle, nothing stellar.
And that felt weird at Cafe Chenar, because everything had been solid, good, or great. The intrepid diners of metro Phoenix will be stoked that the Uvaydovs have looked home for restaurant No. 3. This gridiron stretch of north Phoenix needs better and more diverse food options. Though the tables are still mostly empty, the homestyle meats, heavy aromatics, and earnest service should magnetize diners for some Bukharian. That or the dumplings.
1601 East Bell Road, Suite A-11
Hours: Sunday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; closed Saturday.
*Note: Cafe Chenar doesn’t serve alcohol.
Lamb Rib Kebab $7