Wednesday, June 3, 2009

What could “fast-casual European, Russian and Kazakh cuisine” be? The answer to this unusual culinary riddle is Cafe Assorti on Wilson Boulevard in Arlington, where the owners are Kazakh but the food has little to do with Kazakhstan or even Europe, strictly defined. The cuisine is mostly Russian, which is little wonder because Kazakhstan became part of the Russian Empire in the early 18th century and was part of the Soviet Union from 1920 until its breakup in 1991.

Cafe Assorti gives the appearance of a cheerful lunchroom, with a somewhat garish orange the dominating color throughout. The restaurant is divided into two sides: one for dining, the other with a small full-service bar and a pastry counter. There’s nothing either exotic or romantic here, but it offers excellent service; a few inexpensive, tasty dishes; and several terrific desserts. Beers and wines are available.

Traditional Kazakh cuisine springs from Kazakhstan’s nomadic roots and features milk and meat - primarily horse meat and mutton - as the bases of a majority of the dishes. The national meat dish is beshparmak, large chunks of boiled meat in a meat broth. Today’s Kazakh cuisine is a combination of Uzbek, Russian and Korean dishes. Rest assured that your horse would be safe at Cafe Assorti, and there’s no mutton on the menu, either.

Cafe Assorti’s Kazakh dishes are limited to manti (meat-filled noodlelike dumplings), samsa and rasstegal (breadlike pastries embracing beef, vegetables or chicken, varying only in shape).

The chopped or ground beef in the Kazakh specialties is ample but lacks spice and tends to be dry. It’s also the filling in crepes, which are light and generously filled with beef or chicken, the same chopped chicken with bits of potato used in the samsa. Dessert crepes with apples, sour cream and jam or honey are available.

A variety of salads are made with vegetables or with beef, chicken or calamari. We tried the beet salad: julienned beets mixed with crumbled walnuts, a little garlic and a sweetish dressing, a refreshing combination. Eggplant salad, described as a mix of spicy eggplant, carrots, bell peppers and onions, turned out to be bland, with very little eggplant and mostly julienned carrots.

Main courses include a beef cutlet and scallop. The country steak and beefsteak are not steak but chopped beef - this is not your neighborhood steakhouse.

“Breton chicken” is a flattened piece of chicken breast with a nice creamy walnut sauce. The main-course meat dishes are served with a choice of rice, mashed potatoes or french fries, all of which are well prepared and fresh, as is the steamed broccoli.

The best dishes to order are the samsa, rasstegal, manti, crepes and perhaps a salad or two. The meat pirogi (“piroshki” on the menu) are good as well, but on a recent visit, our waiter informed us that the kitchen was out of cabbage and the cabbage-filled pirogi were unavailable.

The highlight of any meal at Cafe Assorti, be it breakfast, lunch or dinner, is the variety of terrific bakery items. The pastry chef came from Kazakhstan with the restaurant owner, and his European pastries are wonderful. Try the napoleon cake, a tower of thin layers of puff pastry and cream, a knockout desert. The sweet cheese pie and a lovely tart lemon pie made with all parts of the lemon follow close behind. There are many pies and cakes, breakfast items and coffeecakes. Not everything is available all of the time, as cakes are baked at intervals during the day, so everything is fresh.

RESTAURANT: Cafe Assorti, 1800 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, 703/465-0036

HOURS: 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday and until 9 p.m. Sunday

PRICES: Appetizers and salads $2 to $8; main courses $7 to $12.50; desserts $1.50 to $6.50

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Street parking

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

METRO: Court House (Orange line)

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