Friday, October 06, 2017

Uzbekistan: Bek

For our first restaurant experience in Tashkent, Eitan wanted to try a branch of Bek that was near our house.  I think he remembered this chain from his previous visits to Uzbekistan.

We found the place without much ado and took a table toward the back of the main room.  On the stage up front, a man was wowing the crowd with his Michael Jackson dance moves.  As MJ's hits played, this man performed the matching choreography.  I couldn't see him that well from our table, but he seemed to be doing a pretty good job.

As the show continued, a waitress came to take our order.  We mulled over the drink options for a minute, and something caught Eitan's eye.

"You wanna try Uzbek champagne?" he asked me.

I was game, so we ordered a bottle.  Eitan also ordered a few salads for his dinner, but I wasn't hungry at the time.

By now, the Michael Jackson performer had finished his act, and a group of traditional dancers was on the stage.  This group consisted of three ladies and a man.  The man, who was dressed all in black and reminded me of Westley from The Princess Bride, was leaping around the women like a gazelle.

Heads in the crowd popped up as people set aside their vodka to clap along to the music.

When our "champagne" appeared at the table, Eitan and I were sure we had received the wrong bottle.  According to the label, we received a bottle of Chardonnay.  There is such a thing as sparkling Chardonnay, of course, but this is not what we received.

For starters, the bottle was not under pressure and was closed with a standard wine cork.  When our waitress, Maftuna, popped it, there was nary a pop at all.  This was surely a normal bottle of Chardonnay.

When Maftuna poured the first glass, however, things became more ambiguous, as a tiny stream of bubbles snaked from the bottom of the glass toward the surface.  These bubbles only lasted for a few seconds, however, and led me to believe that we were not drinking a sparkling wine at all, but rather an immature wine still undergoing fermentation.

The bottle only cost $3, so we didn't bother to send it back.

With notes of apple, vinegar, and curiously, salami, my first sip of the Uzbek champagne was, uh, memorable.

Meanwhile, the traditional dancers had wrapped things up, and booming Arabian music filled the hall.  Enter the belly-dancers.

Half a dozen young women wearing sheer fabrics and sparkles convened on the stage from a few different directions.  They only gyrated for a few minutes, however, before they began leaving the stage.

"Crap!" I thought to myself.

I'm not a fan of audience participation.  I don't want the comedian on stage to talk to me; I don't want the clown at the circus to pull me aside for a gag, and I don't want a dancer to come to my table.  As I watched the ladies fan out across the room, I felt a sense of dread.

Since Eitan and I were sitting toward the back of the room, it took several minutes for the ladies to reach us.  When they reached us, though, they really reached us.

Most diners had one or at most, two, dancers at their tables, but we ended up with four.  Perhaps like animals, they had smelled my fear.

Completely surrounded, I sipped on my special wine and stared straight at the table.  I would have been hard pressed to make the encounter more awkward without, say, covering my face with a napkin or laying my head on the table.

Eitan seemed to be enjoying the personal show more than I was, but after a few minutes, even he had reached his limit.  In an attempt to send the ladies on their way, Eitan pulled out his wallet and started tipping.

He gave the first two ladies 1,000 soum (about 12 U.S. cents) each, and they took their leave.

Eitan had no more 1,000-soum notes left at this point, and he discreetly tucked away his 5,000-, 10,000-, and 50,000-soum bills.  Neither of us felt like paying real money for a show we were never much into.

"What about this one?" he asked me.

He was holding a 200-soum note (about 2 U.S. cents).

"I guess you can try it," I answered.

Eitan handed it to one of the two remaining ladies at our table.  As we were now tipping in pennies, the other lady threw in the towel and left empty-handed.  The woman who had received the 200 soum wasn't happy either.  She threw it down on the table and continued to dance, trying to elicit a bigger tip.  After another minute, however, she too realized she was fighting a losing battle.  She collected the 200-soum note that she had rejected only moments before and followed her friends into the dressing room.

After the belly-dancers vacated, the DJ announced a birthday.

Right on cue, the birthday girl and her entourage emerged from one of the private rooms off the big room.  The girl stood in the center of the stage holding a bouquet of roses while her friends formed a ring around her and sang Happy Birthday (in English, to my surprise).  As they were merrily singing, the chef appeared with his apron and puffy hat, and presented the young lady a cake with a substantial sparkler erupting from the top.

I understand that smiling protocols vary in different cultures around the world, but I had to laugh at this birthday celebration.

While a boisterous crowd was singing, the girl and the chef stood in the middle of the circle, side-by-side and completely stone-faced, holding a cake emitting a stream of sparks.  It was like the painting American Gothic with light pyrotechnics.

After the English birthday song, the girl's friends sang a round in Russian, and the structured part of the evening drew to a close.  The DJ kicked on some Top 40.

As Eitan finished his dinner and we both worked on the champagne, a gaggle of older Uzbeks took to the dance floor, arms elevated, swaying from side to side to Despacito.


Bruce said...

Hey Chris,

Love you stories!!!

All your adventures seem so funny and the way you describe them is priceless! I love belly dancers...we're they fat and ugly??? Sure miss you guys in The big K.



Unknown said...

I love the way you see things that other people would miss and capture them in your writing. This was hilarious.

Eleanor White said...

Happy to learn about Uzbek ovdr the next few years--thanks! Eleanor Wite

Anonymous said...

....maybe if you had danced WITH them they would have paid YOU....hugs. sm

Dil said...

Great! We will learn a lot about Uzbek form you! Thank you, Chris

Anonymous said...

I am going to learn from your mistakes: don't order champagne; and piss the belly dancers off quick with US12c.