Sunday, August 14, 2011

Six Business Lunches

Last week I promised to provide you with reviews of the business lunches available in the restaurants to Sandra's office.  Business lunches are three to six course menus, sometimes with a choice of main, served fairly quickly, with courses sometimes arriving together, or out of order, and charged at a fixed price of around $8.00 (excluding drinks).  As you will see below, they are fairly formulaic and as you won't be able to tell from the notes below, can be very hit and miss.  In truth one really needs to sample a few lunches at each place to be fair, but I had to use all by good conduct points to get Sandra to do six lunches in a row, and frankly don't have a snowball's chance in hell of getting her to repeat the cycle for another couple of weeks.  So I am afraid that the story below will be best I can do.  I have made my comments in note form, as the food does not inspire creative commentary.

HUGO’S

Large recently renovated restaurant with a mezzanine area reached up a grand staircase.  Big downstairs bar and seating on banquettes and chairs, high and low.













Carrot Salad.  Finely julienned carrot, with a little oil and a lot of garlic.  Too much for Sandra to eat.  Needed salt which we had and would have really benefitted from some lemon juice or vinegar which we didn’t have.  The julienne were quite long (must have been done through a fine chipper) and so were like spaghetti, only so stiff they wouldn’t curl round a fork.  I gave up and chopped them.

Soup (Borsch).  This is a regular on all menus.  It is not an exotic beet root soup.  It is a watery vegetable based stock which may have beets in it (I don’t think this did).  This had some tomato in the broth.  In the soup are usually finely chopped vegetables, onion, cabbage and small cubes of potatoes.  Some soups have meat in them and they are usually more oily, sometimes very oily.  This had no meat and was not too oily.  It was quite good, and came with a couple of sweetish soft crusted  bread buns.

Shallow fried fish.  Like most expat.s here Sandra won’t eat the fish as it is locally caught and the Ural is quite polluted.  It is not the bacterial pollution that worries most people but the heavy metals that come from the industrial zones of Russia further up-stream.  For that reason boiling tap water is not an advised procedure, and we have bottled water in the flat.  So I had to have the fish which was in a thick batter which had the consistency of an undercooked crepe.  It was even hard to peal it off the very soft and mushy textured little fish that beneath it.  The fish tasted fresh, but the texture suggested it might have been slowly frozen and defrosted.  It was not helped by the accompanying potatoes which were just like chips, but instead of being fried had been boiled in oil till they were almost cooked, and then served.


Chili and Rice:  Beans and meat in a flour thickened “sauce” with no hint of and chili spices served on rice.  Rather bland but the meat was lean and tender and the rice was fine.  The odd bean helped, but the sauce did not.  Edible but nothing to commend it.


Cake.  Sponge with fake cream and some red goo.  Harmless enough!

Four courses for TG1600 ($10)     (Sandra for free)

The Verdict: Each only managed two of the four courses (the only common one being the soup). Hungry again in an hour.



PETROVSKI

Close to Hugo’s and the AKCO offices this restaurant is more modest than Hugo’s but like Hugo’s a favourite of the venture personnel, as they get to sign for lunch (have it free!).  We sat in a booth at the back, which was fairly comfortable and ordered business lunches.









Soup.  The typical vegetable soup, no meat this time, but nor were there tomatoes. The garnish was parsley not dill.  It was perfectly acceptable.  There was a plate of three types of bread,  black, white and orange.  They all seemed to taste about the same.



Pork Shashlick.  It came with raw onion rings, and chopped parsley, white rice and a tomato sauce which was plain pureed tomatoes with possibly a little onion in it.  Pork was overcooked and so a bit tough but lean and tasty.  It had been well marinated in garlic.  The rice was undercooked and hard in the center.  The sauce added wetness and not much else.


Two courses for TG1300 each. (Sandra for free)
The verdict: Basically edible but not very much to eat.  Next time I’ll eat all the bread.

GUNS AND ROSES
This is a large English style (loosely) pub in an hotel of OK quality.  The pub is more geared to nightlife with live music three nights a week, and business lunches provide a bit of extra income and work for the staff.

Salad.  Chunks of cucumber with chopped parsley.  The dressing appeared to be salt.  Sandra left hers after one bite.  I was smarter, and seeing the two bottles of oil and vinegar, decided a dash of vinegar would greatly improve it.  And it would have done, soy sauce on the other hand only made it more salty so I ate Sandra’s.  Oil and soy, an odd table dressing combination.




Soup. The same old, same old…this one with a couple of pieces of meat in it.  The meat was lean and tender, and the soup wasn’t very oily, so it managed to avoid failing in the two most common hurdles, grease and grizzle.

Chicken Fillet Garish (sic) Rice.  Turned out to be boiled pieces of chicken in a creamy sauce with a drizzle of bright red beet sauce (I am fairly sure)  accompanied by rice with vegetables in it.  I couldn’t eat the rice, it had an odd earth taste, though Sandra ate most of hers.  The chicken was fairly moist but the sauce was rich and unpleasant.  I wonder if it was cream sauce made out of some fake cream.  We have never found real cream here and this had an odd flavor. 











Three courses for TG1300 each (Sandra not for free here)

The verdict: hungry again in about two hours.





























TAKSIM

This restaurant is actually a Caf√© with a nightclub upstairs.  It only does business lunches, there is nothing else on the menu. There are plastic covered benches in the booths, and it helps to sit close to the air conditioning. 




















Salad.  Typical Russian salad which is small diced vegetables (carrots, potatoes, peas usually) and sometimes extras like eggs, pickles and in today’s…chopped up crabsticks all stuck together (a chef’s term) with mayonnaise-ish stuff.  It was edible if one ate fast enough to stop the fishy flavor becoming too noticeable. 

One rather odd feature of some of these business lunches, like the one served here, is they do not bring the courses in any rigid order, so after the salad the soup and dessert arrived.




Soup. It was the usual vegetable broth, but as you can see from the picture it had meat in it, very well cooked beef but quite alright.  It also had pickle chopped in with the vegetable.  It was fine and not as greasy as the last soup I had here which I could not drink.  There was a plate of white bread but it had been cut a long time earlier and had no flavor.  A shame because I am coming to rely on the bread as the main filling component of these lunches.


There was a bonus course here, a glass of apple juice, or at least that is what it is supposed to be.  Sandra habitually declines hers (something they don't really like, "you paid for it, you get it!").  It didn't taste very appley or very nice.  One of those tastes that seems painless enough on the first taste but then seems to get worse.  Rather than getting used to it the opposite happens, and the last mouthful was like drinking swamp water.







Cabbage Rolls. Two rolls stuffed with beef and rice, mainly beef.  They were quite good.  The cabbage was very well cooked and was textureless and flavourless, after a couple of bites I pealed it off and left it, but the stuffing was fairly tasty  and I think I may even have detected a slight cayenne zing, or maybe I was just hoping!

Cake.  I don’t usually eat desserts, but in order to provide you with information you need to make your choice, I tried it.  It actually was impressively tasteless for something that looked sweet and sickly.  I could have eaten it, but why bother, the bread tasted better and I didn’t eat that.





It cost $8 each.  It was also a lot better than last time we were here.



It is now Friday morning and I am encountering some resistance from my lunchtime companion (Sandra!) to undertake a fifth consecutive business lunch!  What is worse it is supposed to be back to O’Niels, which has been one of the worst so far.  Sandra’s lamb was just a big chunk of bone with grizzle attached. I am also commenting on the Pizza Club which we actually went to last week so as to cover all six business lunch venues.


Price TG1200 ($8.00)


Verdict: More a local cafe and food reflects this.  Food comes quickly and rather randomly.  But having eaten here a couple of times I can say the quality is very variable.



PIZZA CLUB

This is really an evening restaurant exploiting the lunchtime opportunity.  There is an outdoor streetside patio but the main restaurant is a cavernous basement.


Salad.  The usual chopped vegetables: cabbage, carrots, onion and some canned peas in an oil dressing.  Edible but about as exciting as the plain dry and rather sweet white bread that appeared with it.














Soup.  A rather oily broth with the same combination of vegetables (potato, carrot, cabbage and onion) and some chopped dill and parsley.  I wonder if all the soup comes from a central kitchen in some secret Atyrau location and the restaurants just add oil, herbs and sometimes a bit of boiled meat.













Meat Pie Thing.  This was something quite different.  It was a served like a square slice of lasagna.  On the bottom was a thin layer of ground beef pressed together like sausage.  Then there was a layer of grated carrot and possibly some onion, and on top were pieces of potato cut like thin French fries.  Some sort of white creamy sauce had been poured over it and sunk down to the carrot layer.  It was baked but the potatoes were a little undercooked.  I am beginning to think that perhaps the Kazakhs like their potatoes al dente.  This was a welcome change from the normal main courses but not something I will be reproducing at home (or ordering in another restaurant)



Dessert.  This was a very very hard cookie crust base pile with what looked like cream but was a sort of soft meringue drizzled with a day-glow fruit gel.  

 Tea.  The tea came with very hot water and a quite acceptable tea bag.  Better than Red Rose anyway!








Price:  Cannot remember!

Verdict: Not the best ambience, like eating in a basement nightclub without the music.  Food was a little different but not better.

O’NIELLS PUB

This Irish style pub is next to the Chagala Building which is the office block for AKCO (Agip) so it is a popular business lunch spot.  This photo is from the internet.  Last time I tried to photograph it a security guard started making a fuss as he didn't like me using a camera next to AKCO.  As a result I was unable to get a clear picture.




The last business lunch we had here was really awful, So we were hoping this would be better!  The menu offered a choice so Sandra went first with chicken wings (phew!) leaving me to have the meat pie.




 The salad and soup came together.  The bread was already on the table.

The salad was glass noodles and grated carrot. There was some indiscernible dressing on it.  Oil and something and some parsley.  The soup was chicken and though a bit oily was made from a chicken broth, had all the usual vegetables, and chunk of chicken thigh in it.  It was pretty good.

The bread looks good, it always does, but it is rather tasteless and surprisingly soft.  If dipped in the soup it tends to quickly disintegrate.

 The meat pie was stuffed with ground beef and onions.  It was not really spiced or seasoned with anything, but the flavour was fine.  It was served with some sour cream sauce and sprinkled with parsley.  The most interesting thing was the crust, which looked like a crispy firm pastry but was actually more the texture of a suet dough.  The base had absorbed all the juices from the meat and was quite soggy, but still tasted fine.  Not a bad dish, but didn't taste nearly as good as it looked, and I thought it looked quite appetising.
The chicken wings were not the crispy spicy buffalo versions of north America, but stewed in a gravy.  They were served with rice.  I didn't taste this gluey dish but Sandra managed to get some meat off the bones and clean up the rice.  Surprisingly she didn't rave about it!




Dessert was declined by Sandra, but I cannot compliment her on her self discipline.  It would have been all too easy to do the same, but I had my duty.  So I tucked in to a piece of doughnut pastry, stuffed with nothing but drizzled with a chocolate like sauce.  As a person with an avid aversion to fake chocolate, this tested my mettle.  It seemed to be a couple of grades down from that Hershey's Sauce which looks frighteningly fake.  I can confidently say that Krispy Kreme need not feel threatened.












Price TG1350 ($9.00)
Verdict:  Edible and much better than last time.

Conclusion:  You have no idea how glad I am that we have finished that little exercise, and I am now really  looking forward to Sancak again next week.



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