Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Chicago Dining World Tour: A Kyrgyz 'How Do You Do' at Jibek Jolu

Jibek Jolu
5047 N. Lincoln, Chicago

What I ate: Cheburek, Pirojki, Kesme soup, Beshbarmak, Pelmeni

In order to fortify my Chicago Dining World Tour, throughout this year I have regularly been looking for--and looking up--ethnic restaurants that I might want to explore.

But on a recent Saturday night, my friend Ken and I went to a place I only discovered during that week. By stumbling across the website, I found several intriguing places with which I was unfamiliar, including those representing cultural cuisines I had yet to sample. 

The website provides ethnic dining suggestions from Chicago cabbies, and among the website's bounty was Jibek Jolu, which seems to be the only Kyrgyz restaurant in Chicago. For the geographically-challenged, like me, Kyrgyzstan is a small country in Central Asia, essentially under Kazakhstan (I know, that likely doesn't help much).

Ken also had never heard of Jibek Jolu, and surmised from the address that its Lincoln Square location might make nearby parking a challenge, but we were able to find a space on the street right in front of the restaurant.

At which point Ken mentioned that he and his friend Ed, who had accompanied us on a Bulgarian dining expedition, had often driven by Jibek Jolu and noted that they should try it sometime.

We entered to find a bright, attractively appointed place with about 10 tables, initially mostly empty but largely filled in by the time we left.

Our waitress was friendly but seemingly not fluent enough in English to field some of our questions or provide acute descriptions of some of the menu items.

Still, from the nicely informative menu, several of the appetizers sounded appealing, and we selected two to share. 

One was a single Cheburek, described as fried pie filled with lamb. The shell was rather tasty but the word "filled" turned out to be a vast overstatement, as in splitting the cheburek in two, we discovered just a paltry piece of lamb and a whole lot of air.

The other appetizer, Pirojki, had a name that sounded enough like a pierogi for me to surmise it might be similar, but given the description (deep fried Russian pie, filled with mashed potatoes and scallion), it wasn't too shocking to discover that it wasn't really akin.

While there was nothing really wrong with the pirojki (3 came in one order), they weren't nearly as deep fried as the cheburek--or an Indian samosa--making for what was essentially mashed potatoes in a soft shell.

We were given some terrifically fresh bread and Ken ordered mint tea, noting how fresh its mint flavor was. I stuck with Diet Coke.

We both ordered soup. Ken chose Shorpo = Big pieces of veal with red potatoes, garlic and scallion.

He declared the broth to be very good but seemed envious of my choice:  Kesme = Noodle soup with freshly cut beef, potatoes, peppers, carrots, tomatoes and garlic, which was rather tasty.

I let him try some.

We ordered two entrees with the intention of sharing them. 

Our first choice was described on the menu as: A popular dish in Kyrgyzstan, the boiled Lamb is diced with knives and mixed with special stew and boiled noodles.

This was called Beshbarmak. We consumed it all and had no complaints, but the flavoring--particularly of the lamb--wasn't nearly as pronounced as I prefer.

Our other entree was similarly good but not great, mainly because the taste was more muted than zesty.

Available on a dish or in a soup--we chose soupless--Pelmeni = Homemade triangular dumplings stuffed with ground beef and onions served with sour cream.

Reminding me of Italian gnocchi, Polish pierogi and Chinese won ton, the dumplings were quite fresh and the whole dish was relatively nice & light.

As with anywhere visited on my "Sethnic expedition," our experience could likely have been considerably different simply by making different menu choices.

It seems possible this was the case at Jibek Jolu, where everything from the bread to the menu design was pleasant and pleasurable, but nothing that we ate really blew us away.

So Ken and I skipped any of the listed desserts (baklava, honey cake, tiramisu) and opted instead to engorge ourselves on a pair of crème brûlées--one regular, one chocolate--at Bonefish Grill in Skokie.

No offense to Jibek Jolu, where I would happily return sometime down the (Silk) road, but these were by far the most delicious calories we consumed all night.

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