A bit farther on inside the actual restaurant, its intimate nooks separated by cake-icing stucco arches, there are numerous celebrations going on, too. An elderly couple fetes its anniversary over plates of handmade dumplings, pickled mushrooms and vodka toasts, including a "Gorko! Gorko! Gorko!" cheer from tablemates who chant in Russian ("Bitter! Bitter! Bitter!") until the silver-haired couple finally kiss ("Sweet!!"). At a big table in the other corner, meanwhile, a mountainous rice platter of lamb plov arrives for another group, where a sleepy-eyed baby is hoisted high - well after 10:30 p.m. - for a rousing first-birthday cheer.
They train them young in Russian Northeast Philly to party late into the night. And they feed them well, too, with course upon course of hand-rolled noodles, earthy soups, and charcoal-grilled shashlik skewers that bring an authentic taste of the homeland to the Bustleton Avenue borscht belt.
"I must say I'm impressed," said my daughter's Moscow-born piano teacher, who, with her husband, helped us navigate the menu.
Without the aid of a native speaker, an evening in the Russian restaurant corridor might be a bit intimidating to an outsider - especially in one of the neighborhood's more typical Russian venues, which tend to be big nightclubs with banquet menus and live disco floor shows (though places like Golden Gates can be a real trip under the right circumstances).
But Uzbekistan, which co-owner Arthur Romanov opened earlier this year with his partners, chef Tavakal Rahimberdiez and Ari Getman, across the street from their casual cafe (which shares the same name and menu), is a more manageable a la carte sit-down restaurant. The menu has decent translations and the pleasant young servers speak English well. And while there's still a joyous celebratory air (and dinner can take hours unless you indicate otherwise), food and conversation are the main events.
The bread alone is worth a visit. This flying-saucer-shaped round with a seed-speckled indentation in the middle reminds me of a giant bialy, and is simply addictive when it arrives hot and crisp-bottomed from the tandoor oven.
Mention of an Indian tandoor may seem odd, but it's a reminder that Uzbekistan occupies an exotic corner of the former Soviet Union, more Central Asia than Eastern Europe. Its perch on the Silk Road, touching the northwest corner of Afghanistan, explains the appearance of lagman, the hand-rolled noodles with roots in China that anchor bowls of lamb-scented soup, as well as plates topped with a soulful kavurma sauce of braised lamb and tomatoes. There are nods to Uzbekistan's large Korean community, with dishes like "fimchusa" glass noodles tossed with spicy ground meat. And there is a deeply flavored veal-and-beet borscht, as well as handmade vareniki dumplings, to please the local Ukrainian clientele.
Turkish influence appears in the oversized "manti," the twisted-top dumplings filled with an oniony mince of beef and lamb. A similar stuffing, flecked with cilantro, comes tucked inside the addictively pan-crisped crepes called chebureks. There is even a shade of Armenia in the slivered threads of spice-cured basturma beef that come, oddly enough, atop the "Greek" salad.
The Uzbeks take their salads and veggies seriously, and there is a satisfying array to start the feast. Try a plate of pickled mixed mushrooms (great with your best BYO vodka), or the spicy tomato-onion salad known as "achick-chuck," or the slawlike vegetable shred (menu-listed as "mixed salad") tossed with melty chunks of fried eggplant.
But Uzbekistan is ultimately a carnivore's domain. And while there is some variety in the meats here, especially on the kebab grill (paprika-tinged tender chicken, beefy medallions of skirt steak, tender cubes of veal liver), the kitchen's dominant theme is lamb.
Lamb infuses soups like the kharcho, which is also filled with rice. It comes braised on the shank to a burnished tenderness alongside a tasty mound of fresh cottage fries.
Lamb also perfumes the cumin-flecked pilaf known as plov, the Uzbek national dish, which comes studded with meltingly tender morsels of the meat and a heady shine of molten lamb grease that glistens from every grain of rice. The menu's standard Samarkand plov ($5.99) was so addictively good, I'd definitely consider returning with a group of 10 for the advance-order Chaihana plov ($80), the restaurant's signature dish, which comes with whole heads of garlic inside and "lots of other meats," says Romanov. Lamb testicles, he said proudly, are also available for aficionados by special order.
The menu's standard lamb kebabs were good enough for me. Marinated with pureed onion, paprika and cumin, the tender chops ("chalahach") and morsels of leg were memorably tasty. I even came to appreciate the scrawny lamb ribs. They lack much meat, but were intriguing to gnaw on, because they left an intense imprint of the heat-charred savor and smoke on my lips - one that lasted well beyond the pot of black tea and densely chewy honey cake we devoured for dessert.
As we left Uzbekistan's parking lot and drove back through the rainy Northeast, I turned south on I-95 and licked my lips. The skyline of home was rising in the distance, but the flavors of this journey would last well into the night.
Next Sunday, restaurant critic Craig LaBan reviews LoBianco in Collingswood. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or email@example.com.