Ornate teapots and figurines fill a display case at the counter of Shirin Café. A decorative carpet and miniature paintings of landscapes and cityscapes hang on the walls.
Take a tour of Central Asia at Shirin Café, a storefront restaurant tucked away in the Design Center shopping area on Route 9 in Manalapan.
Opulence greets you on the menu as well as in the décor.
If you order Uzbek tea, for example, and you strike the waiter as being the type of person who has not done so before, you might soon find the owner of the restaurant by your side. Albert Sevumyants, an Armenian from Uzbekistan who owns Shirin Café with his wife, Marina, takes delight in explaining the ceremonial aspects of Uzbek tea.
You’ll learn to fill the handle-less tea cup just under half full and hand it directly to your guest. You’ll enjoy the black or green tea with sugar-coated chick peas and candied pineapple bits. If you drop a sugar cube into your tea, that will be a faux pas, but Sevumyants will gently correct you and suggest you slip another cube between your teeth before you take your next sip.
All this elegance marks the end of a delicious meal.
The menu is heavy on lamb, and if you’re squeamish about meat in general, you will have to dig deep to find options. There is lamb in soups, lamb in dumplings, lamb stuffed into two quails. There is veal tongue and veal liver.
But a beautiful loaf of Uzbek bread makes a universally welcome starter. Served warm, the circular loaf looks like a Bundt cake. It is crusty and light, speckled with toasted sesame seeds.
Vareniki, Russian-style pierogi, have a tender dough and a mild potato filling, enlivened by a topping of caramelized onions and fresh dill.
Samsa with pumpkin is a traditional Uzbek appetizer, comparable to Indian samosas. The triangular puff pastry is filled with pumpkin puree and topped by nigella seeds, which have a nutty taste, similar to sesame seeds.
Kutabi, savory Azerbaijani pancakes, are filled with meat or greens at Shirin Café, accompanied by a creamy dipping sauce.
All these appetizers had mild flavor and a satisfying, chewy texture, great for nibbling before the main event.
Carnivores will devour the succulent lamb kebab, but equally good is the salmon kebab, moist and flavorful, drizzled with a pomegranate sauce.
The only miscue among the entrees we sampled was the chicken Tabaka, a sautéed Cornish hen, served butterflied. The meat was dry, and the “piquant sauce” seemed to be nothing more exotic than Mexican salsa, and did not complement the dish.
Save room for homemade pastries by Marina Sevumyants. There is Pakhlava, Armenian-style baklava, which is thicker than Lebanese or Greek baklava, topped by pecan halves. Or try Sochinskiy, a yellow honey cake with six thin layers filled with what is described simply as “custard,” but which tastes more like espresso frosting. An elaborate pecan layer cake is filled with dense chocolate and chocolate chips.
Shirin Café, Design Center, 345 Route 9 South, Manalapan, 07726. 732-462-8585 or shirincafe.com.