When you cross the threshold of Restaurant Baku, you know you’re not in Plymouth anymore, especially when you’re greeted in what sounds like Russian. But where exactly are you?
We must confess we were uncertain as to where to locate Azerbaijan on a map, but a visit to Baku’s website was a helpful pre-dinner primer. Baku is the capital of Azerbaijan, a country on the Caspian Sea. Boris Revinov, owner and chef, hails from the city of Baku. He moved to Minnesota to join friends in Plymouth, where there is a healthy Russian population. While he wasn’t a restaurateur in his former country, Revinov had always enjoyed cooking, and Plymouth needed a gathering place for his community.
Located in a non-descript strip mall, the two-year-old restaurant is a busy gathering point for celebrations. On the Saturday evening we visited Baku, most of the dining room was caught up in a raucous party. An older gentleman wearing a golden crown and velvet cape presided over a long table of celebrants. “That is the birthday king,” our server Eugene informed us. We vicariously enjoyed toasts, tributes and innumerous rounds of vodka shots. A karaoke singer sang Russian tunes while well-dressed couples swirled around the parquet dance floor.
Azerbaijan is flanked by Russia, Armenia, Georgia and Iran; its cuisine draws elements from these diverse neighbors as well as from the bounty of the Caspian Sea. Georgia is known for its shish kebabs and flavors we typically associate with a Middle Eastern palate, such as garlic, sumac, saffron, cumin and mint. Russian cuisine is milder and heartier, ideal for soaking up the copious libations necessary for a proper party.
We needed help to navigate our gastronomic adventure and our waiter Eugene was happy to recommend a few classic dishes. We began with the Salad Oliviet ($7), listed on the menu as “the customary Russian salad,” which was essentially a mayonnaise-based potato salad with cubes of chicken, pickle, carrot and hard-boiled egg. It would be right at home at a Fourth of July picnic. More exotic was the Georgian dish lobio, ($5) which simply means “beans.” Our server warned us that we would taste it for days to come, and true to his word, the red kidney beans were doused in a pungent vinaigrette chock-full of chopped raw garlic. Garnished with walnuts and cilantro, it was as delicious as it was powerful.
Despite the exotic setting, many of the dishes were essentially comfort food. Chicken Tabaka ($14) is a whole Cornish game hen, pressed flat and fried golden in a tabaka, or heavy skillet— as homey as Sunday’s roasted chicken. It came with a sauce that remained unclassified, as the language barrier is a challenge at Baku, albeit a charming one. When we asked what was in the sauce, the answer was, “Yes, sauce.” We discerned tomato, cilantro and garlic. The chicken was served with sautéed snow peas in cilantro, garlic, ginger and sesame oil, which was very curiously Asian-tasting, but somehow fit right in.
Azerbaijani cuisine features many soups, which makes it ideal for a Minnesota climate. Piti ($10), a classic Azerbaijani dish, is simply lamb with onion, potatoes and chickpeas. The meat is falling-off-the-bone tender, and the broth is rich with deeply simmered vegetables and aromatics. A sprinkling of fresh cilantro brightened this soothing bowl of succor, which promises to become our cold-weather staple.
The menu states, “‘Dobro pozalovat’ is a popular Russian phrase, which simply is an expression of love and affection. We pledge to express these feelings through the delightful and flavorful food that we serve.” Indeed, no matter the unfamiliar language, we felt right at home—not to mention well-fed— in this fascinating and endearing restaurant.
Baku is open for dinner Thursday–Sunday only.
16 Nathan Ln. N.