Thursday, December 15, 2005

Uyghur, or More Adventures in Chinatown


The scene above--a massive, banquet hall-style restaurant (formerly a dim sum palace) completely devoid of people save for the double image of a man soloing wildly on a 2-stringed fretless lute provided by twin TV screens--was what we found when we went to Uyghur, a newish Chinatown restaurant, a few weeks ago. I noticed Uyghur's appearance on the east side of St. Laurent between Viger and de la Gauchetière a couple of months ago--there was something about the camel, the mosque, and the Islamic calligraphic script on their sign that made the restaurant stand out, catching my eye. I made a point of giving their menu a glance and it looked very intriguing indeed--definitely unlike anything else I'd come across in Montreal--and they claimed to make their own noodles. That might not sound like much if you're lucky enough to live in Toronto, or New York, or Vancouver, or San Francisco, but, around these parts, if someone says they make homemade Asian noodles, you listen. Anyway, we tried going twice that weekend. Our first attempt was made on a Saturday, but they were hosting a wedding reception (good sign, right?) and were otherwise closed to the public. We went back the very next night and found the place dead still. I'm generally a bit wary of empty restaurants--this is something I picked up from my dad--but I was also jonesing for those noodles.

The cuisine at Uyghur, in case you missed the reference, is that of China's Xianjian Uyghur Autonomous Region, a massive province that makes up one-sixth of China's total landmass, but is otherwise remote from the mainstream of Chinese society both culturally and politically because of its geography, its ethnic make-up, and its dominant religion: Islam. Hundreds of years ago the region was crossed by a significant portion of the Silk Road, and its culture remains that of an important crossroads. This is reflected quite clearly by the cuisine of the province, which shares similarities with Chinese, Mongolian, Russian, Pakistani, Afghani, and even Turkish cuisine.

We were a little bit worried about how fresh our meal would be, given the fact that we were the only customers, but our fears were dispelled as soon as the food began to arrive to the table. The waiter did balk for a second when we asked for an eggplant dish, but then he looked at his watch and changed his mind. A few minutes later we noticed that another waiter suddenly put on his coat and headed out the front door. Five minutes after that, waiter #2 returned with some Japanese eggplants in tow.

We definitely wanted to sample their noodles. That image of their resident noodle master stretching his fresh-made noodles that's posted near the front door really sticks with you. We ordered the Laghman, a plate of homemade noodles that comes with an accompanying plate of delicious lamb stir-fry with vegetables, as well as the Won Ton Soup, which is more herbal than your standard Chinese version, and comes with homemade lamb-filled noodles that bear a striking similarity to tortellini. "So, how were the noodles?" Homestyle, but fresh and worth a visit. Our eggplant dish came with ground lamb instead of the pork that tends to come with most Chinese eggplant dishes (Uyghur's cuisine being Central Asian and Islamic, lamb or mutton are the principal meats on offer)--it was very tasty and refreshingly unsweet. Uyghur's meat pies and their kebabs were where the Afghani, Pakistani, and Turkish similarities were most obvious, but both held up to the comparison and were remarkably non-derivative. We found the lamb used for the kebab maybe just a bit too fatty (who knows, maybe the wedding party had cleaned them out of "the good stuff" the day before), but the spicing was quite unique and we were very happy to have given them a try. Finally, we loved their "winter salad," a kimchi-like mixed vegetable cabbage and root vegetable concoction that had been marinating since September.

It might have been lonely at Uyghur that Sunday night, but those crazy Turkestani videos were playing, and we ordered a hell of a spread, and the food was very good, so the four of us just ate and ate, took in the scene, and enjoyed ourselves.

Uyghur, 1017 St-Laurent Blvd., (514) 393-8808


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