At the beginning of our tour of the South Caucasus, we stayed in Baku for four nights, which introduced us to the cuisine of Azerbaijan.
Pendir Corek – after a morning tour of Baku’s Old City, our guide suggested Pendir Corek, a restaurant with a large outdoor terrace, just inside the city gates. Here we sampled our first Azerbaijani beer, Xirdalan, when two large glasses of chilled draught beer slipped down on what was a hot day. And at around £2.50 a glass, it was excellent value. I wanted a light snack and ordered qutab, which as I discovered was a thin semicircular folded bready pancake lightly stuffed with minced meat, which came with sumac for dipping.
Returning a few days later for dinner, a singer was blasting out tunes, but a helpful waiter found us a table away from the music, where we sat surrounded by locals with pots of tea and hubbly bubbly pipes. Both our dishes were served Azeri style, in the middle of the table for sharing: Izgara Kὅfta, three beef meatballs served with a salad, long spicy grilled green chilli, rice and a tomato dip, and thumb-sized Dolma, vine leaves stuffed with minced lamb and rice and accompanied by yoghurt. Dolma are so popular in Azerbaijan, that the tradition of dolma making and sharing is recognised by UNESCO as an intangible marker of cultural identity. With a bottle of local Hillside Sauvignon Blanc (a little fruity but fine with a splash of sparking water), our bill was excellent value at 63 Manat (£28).
Fisincan Restaurant – our guide, Ainura, took us to Fisincan for dinner, where we had a choice of sitting outside (too chilly), on the ground floor (loud live music), or upstairs (warm and quiet). Salad is a staple preamble to an Azeri meal, and we were served two. Çoban, or shepherd salad, had chopped tomato, cucumber, onion, dill and coriander, whilst Mangal salad is named after the Caucasian style grill the vegetables are cooked on before being chopped and combined with minced garlic, olive oil and herbs – this was like a finely chopped ratatouille. The first main course was Sac or Saj, which takes its name from the frying pan placed over hot coals. Whilst there are several varieties ours contained chicken and vegetables with thin potato slices arranged around the outside and a couple of folded flat breads. The second meat dish was Qovurma: lamb chunks mixed with walnuts and pomegranate and potato wedges. Everything was delicious and once again, served in the middle of the table along with a basket of bread. This was then followed by tea, refreshingly good and not too strong, served in a fabulous tea pot with long thin spout, and dishes of strawberry and white cherry jams. The tea was poured into pear-shaped armudi glasses and sucked through a mouthful of jam Azeri style, which wasn’t as horrendous as it sounds.
Qaynana (meaning mother-in-law) – was recommended by our hotel, and as they warned us it could be busy, we ate early at 6.30pm. We were delighted to be offered a choice of tables including a table for four along a wall, next to a rack of large jars with colourful pickles and pulses. The English menu helpfully had pictures, and we enjoyed G&Ts and hummus, along with their famous and delicious bread, tendir chorek. As our table was near the open kitchen, I watched the dough being cut, weighed and left to prove, before being shaped and placed in three layers all around the tandoor oven. The lid was put on and left for 12 minutes before the 23 loaves were removed and stacked under a cloth to keep warm. For mains we chose lamb kofta and Ovrushta, four pieces of chicken on the bone cooked in a delicious cherry and chestnut sauce. However, the star of the show was ‘home-made potatoes’, thin wedges which appeared to have been sauteed slowly in seasoned stock, so they were meltingly tender. This time, we tried the Hillside Pinot Grigio which we preferred to the Sauvignon Blanc. With excellent service, it was another bargain meal at 91 Manat (£44).
East Town Restaurant and Lounge – whilst on our self-guided walk from Lonely Planet, we stopped for beers at a restaurant with a small pavement terrace on the pedestrianised shopping street, Nizami Kuc. The squashy sofas were comfortable, and although it was ideal for watching passing shoppers, we became fascinated by lots of people coming and going, and three men constantly moving fixtures and fittings both in and out of the bar. It was only when we were directed to the toilets on the 5th floor that we found a huge bar and restaurant area with panoramic views. Sadly, we had run out of time and were unable to return.
Thanks to a little luck and advice from our guide and hotel, we ate and drank well, and were able to tick off several items from the menu decoder in Lonely Planet.