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Feb 12, 2009 06:20 AM

New Kazakh Restaurant in Arlington

Twenty years after the Fall of the Berlin Wall, eighteen years after the dismantling of the Soviet Union, Arlington finally gets its first Central Asian restaurant, and what a winner it is.

Cafe Assorti is a Kazakh cafe/bakery/cafeteria/restaurant that has the feel of a modern restaurant in a foreign land. From the decor, service, food, to the mixed use space, it resolutely charts a different path than a typical American restaurant. I imagine this place would look or feel no different than a new enterprise in Almaty.

This is a great place to take kids, which I did. By day, you can go up to the counter and choose your food: one section for sweets, the other for savories. At night. waiter service is in effect. Still, service is fast and prices are low. What's more, there are many selections of 'stuffed bread' meals which are well-made and tasty. The spicing is fairly plain and subtle, but really set apart from anything else I've had in the area.

I tried the assorti pie, a Challah stuffed with meat, tomato, egg, and cheese. Wonderful bread, unique yet mild filling. Also tried the manti, enormous meat dumplings with a nice fragrant spicing. I like the pink sauce for the dumplings instead of the red, less acidic. The carrot salad is delicious and zippy, enough for four to share. The beet salad is equally large, but the walnut oil drowns out the flavor of the beets. Good but no better.

The place opens up for breakfast at 8am and stays open all day. Across from Guajillo, Pho 75 and the old Rays the Steaks. I am told they have their own parking, but I have no idea how to access it. I look forward to trying more of the menu.

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  1. Thanks for the tip. I was thinking of going to Ray's for a burger for lunch today but went across the street to Assorti instead. I've seen it there for a while but never looked to see what it was. I wonder if they just recently re-did it, because it looks very new inside. They had a few waiters today (mine was pretty slow but sounded like he spoke the language) so it wasn't serve yourself.

    I had a couple of the small pie things, filled up for under $6. I didn't try a sausage roll, but I will on another trip. I don't know what kind of sausage they have over there.

    Parking is in the lot behind the next building (a white house) toward Rosslyn. I think there were five spaces marked for Assorti, most of the others threaten towing. Plenty of street parking with meters, and the next block toward Clarendon (past Rhodes St) on the right is a block without parking meters. Cheap lunch and free parking. What could be better?

    1. How about that! I assumed from the outside and the name that it was a La Madeleine-type joint and paid it no attention, but now I'll definitely go. In other Arlington central Asian cuisine news, that Italian place by the Courthouse post office that went out of business is being replaced with Afghan kebab. The sign said opening soon!

      4 Replies
      1. re: mordacity

        Was that an Italian place? I thought it was an Atilla's (kabobs).

        1. re: MikeR

          I'm pretty sure it was Italian, though I'd never been there.

          1. re: mordacity

            The place in Courthouse used to be both -- it was Atilla's and then became Courthouse Bistro (Italian) last year for a short time.

            1. re: cheesepowder

              You can't tell the players without a program! ;) I guess I must have had my powers of observation on "low" when walking up the street to either Brooklyn Bagel or California Tortilla.

      2. I just tried a couple of the pastries at Cafe Assorti. They make a vol-au-vent stuffed with sweet cheese that is amazing. No amount of butter spared to create this.

        Most of the other pastries available were egg breads stuffed with various fillings. I chose a 'torpedo' shaped roll filled with poppy seed. Interesting spicing, but overall only ok. Filling needed to be more generous. I would skip the ones that look like rolls.

        1. HUGE thumbs up for Cafe Assorti. Thanks for the tip, Steve. I will be back!

          My colleagues and I went today. The space is bright, modern, and spacious.

          I am biased because I lived in Almaty, but one of my colleagues who has no affinity/affiliation to the area was also duly impressed.

          They rotate the menu, so look for different soups and entrees. Today's soups were a cream of chicken and a mushroom. The chicken was a light cream, no gloopy, cornstarch-thickener here. My friend enjoyed it very much. I had the mushroom soup, which was light, tasty, and full of mush and potato. They smacked of home-made flavor. (Though I would have liked a bit more salt.)

          We tried the beet salad and the Eastern salad with cabbage and carrot. The beet salad was the favorite dish of everyone at the table. The dressing was garlicky and assertive, but didn't overwhelm the sweet crunch of the beet. The cabbage and carrot was also very good, perfectly pickled with a great balance of sour, crunch, and salt. These were all definitely homemade.

          We tried two of the savory pastries, the samsa with beef and one of the vegetable ones. Their dough is very tender and soft. They bake everything on the premises, and they were definitely fresh fresh fresh. The beef one was PACKED with beef, very moist. It lacked the onion that is mandatory in the samsa in Central Asia, but I liked it nonetheless.

          My colleague really liked the manti with beef, the traditional dumplings of the region. He said they were moist and juicy, which is what manti should be. They have veg option, some days with cabbage, other days with potato.

          The service was very, very warm and friendly and welcoming. Everyone there is very proud of the place and the food. Well they should be.

          We got a tour of the sweet side of the pastry counter, courtesy of one of the wonderful hostesses there. We didn't need much selling. I got the "rose", a beautiful, flaky pastry dough twisted with a hint of sweet filling, topped with merangue. Hubba hubba! One colleague got a voule-a-vent (spelling?) which was another type of dough filled with a sweet cheese. A third for the vertinishka (I'm not getting this exactly right) with tvorog, the traditional Eastern European/Russian cheese that's not quite ricotta, not quite cream cheese. (They get the tvorog from New York. It is authentic, baby. So if you have a hankering for buns or bliny filled with tvorog, come to Cafe Assorti and you'll be sated and happy.) Each dough was a very different type, and yet each one was perfectly done. It is obvious they have a great pastry chef on board, the do excel with the doughs. They also have chocolate cakes, tortes, tarts.....

          I can't wait to try their borsht and work my way through the rest of the menu. I also can't wait to try their bliny.

          This place does not skimp on quality: The food is high quality, the tables and chairs are a nice, heavy wood, their glassware and silverware is also heavy and nice. They served our coffee in cups and saucers, it was a very nice Euro touch. (They brew Seattle's Best coffee, by the way, and they do a good job brewing it.)

          They will also cater, for all y'all sick of the usual caterers in the Rosslyn area.

          They have 20 parking spots behind the white building immediately to the left of their entrance (going down the hill toward Rosslyn, not up the hill toward Clarendon).

          I wish them much luck and success! I will do my part to keep them in business, I love seeing places like this flourish.

          Steve, thanks for posting. This is definitely a Chow find!!

          8 Replies
          1. re: venera

            I understand the willingness to give a new place some slack- opening a new restaurant is expensive, hard work, thankless etc.The restaurant is cheerful, with a clean airy feeling to it with brazilian jazzy in the background. Nice. Stylish water glasses, light fixtures, other small touches. This place wants to please. It has a way to go.
            I've been several times and not much has changed from the not working feeling the first week it was open. The flow is terrible...where to go? left right? straight ahead? self-service, table service? Waiters standing around, kitchen staff peering hopefully, cashiers smiling. When I walked in everyone stared and then pounced is if i was the only customer all day. The place was almost empty. Different menus on different days seems a luxury in some cities but in Arlington it seems a needless gimmick. There are 25 restaurants within a mile. Whats more, and more to the point, but each time what I ordered I was told they were out of that after the waiter explained it was a specialty! Pirozh? no, sorry. 'Manti"? who knows? The management clearly expects heavy traffic but there is way too much confusion about what is available and what the food is in the first place.The copy on the menu doesn't make much clear. Its not just unfamiliarity it is a tendency to inflate, make grand. In my opinion they need to simplfy the menu so whatever is ordered is on hand and simplfy it so that it is easy for those unfamilar with the food will order it. Put it on a 3 x 5 card and get rid of those useless menus otherwise might be awhile before the menu finds the audience. Both times I went I ended up with a hot dog in a bun: not exactly ethnic, not exactly what I want for lunch. My colleague got the beef salad and it looked grostesque: a pile of potatoes, beef, eggs cubed, some sort of white sauce covered with shedded cheddar. Frat slop house 3 am kind of food.
            The waiter did drop a knife on my shoe as he cleared the table: well, that can happen, but the problems here are more significant. They must realize something isn't working.

            The pastries look a little forlorn. Fresh? I shy away from cake that has saran wrap on it in a display case. I think a napoloen is a single serving not a slice off a pie. And, I like a cinnamon bun to be fresh and not refeshed by 5 secs in the microwave.

            Simplify everything would be my advice. Someone call Gordon Ramsey and save this restaurant.

            1. re: v_gates

              Sorry you found it so confusing..... maybe if you could tell us what menu terms you didn't understand we could help you.

              I had no problems understanding the entire menu, and I wasn't cutting anyone any slack, new or not, so you can keep the 'tude.

              I guess it was lucky for me they had what I chose and that I enjoyed it so much.

              1. re: Steve

                I went myself and the place has been open only four weeks. In response to the (two posts above) poster, basically I think your review is inaccurate. I am going to visit again before I give my review. But first of all, the menu they have isn't confusing, it's 100% normal. I didn't see any 'hot dog' item on the menu, and doubt they have it. It's mostly a slightly modified form of Russian cuisine. For dinner I saw a lot of red meat entrees, such as Stuffed Peppers. Pastries were fresh, there was no saran wrap on any cake or pie. The napoleon they have is not a regular french style one, but their own version. I'm holding off on judgement of the place but your review was too negative based on what I've seen so far.

                1. re: scrambledeggs

                  I was only there for lunch and the menu was a large laminated card with fairly simple description of the various pastries and salads. But there was a "library" of fancy bound menus which are probably the dinner menu, which I didn't look at.

                  Some of the baked goods at the counter (on both sides of center) were wrapped in plastic wrap, others weren't. I had a waiter so I didn't have to (or get to) serve myself from the counter. They did have a sausage roll that could be described as a hot dog on a bun if you didn't want to like it. I was going to try one on my next visit because I like to try sausages from different cultures. The salads were all in plastic deli boxes and, as far as I could tell from looking around at the few other occupied tables, were served that way. They would look more appetizing if they emptied the box on to a plate.

                  It sounds like they're trying to figure out what they want to be, while keeping their friends employed. I kind of like the idea of self-service or counter service with someone attending who speaks good enough English to describe what's under the covers.

                  1. re: MikeR

                    At dinner, they did not serve the salads in a box, they were plated in quite an attractive manner.

              2. re: v_gates

                Hi v_gates,

                I went again this week and had the opposite experience of what you describe. Everything we ordered was on hand, and some bakery items were so fresh they were still warm.

                I tried the vegetable soup this time, and it was fantastic: light, clear, broth with plenty of cabbage, potatoes, and other mixed veg.

                We got the eggplant and beet salads. The eggplant salad is somewhat of a misnomer, because it was mostly carrots with some eggplant slices here and there. The beet salad is still fabulous. BTW, both times I have gone the salads were served in plates. There are some plastic boxes with salads, but those are in the take-out section.

                This time I got the "rasstegai" with meat and potatoes. The meat and potatoes are both diced and stuffed in a fresh, warm, soft pillow of fantastic home-made bread.

                I felt that everything could use a bit of salt, but that was easily remedied at my table.

                They invited us back to try their breakfast, and even showed us some specialty items like "sirniki" that looked very good. When one of my colleague asked about kids, she was given a kids menu and invited to come with the little one any time.

                I'd take this fresh, wholesome, homemade food over the other stuff readily available throughout Rosslyn anyday.

                Service was still very good, with the waiter making recommendations a la "Some pirozki just came out of the oven, we have ones stuffed with meat or with cabbage."

                1. re: venera

                  My experience there was quite positive. Granted, I tend to give the benefit of the doubt to a non-chain place that's trying to introduce a new cuisine to the area. But I agree that the menu is confusing: it's not clear how the dishes differ from each other. And our waiter, charming as he was, had trouble clarifying.

                  Other than that, I couldn't disagree more with v gates. But he did the place a service by getting us to talk about it. I hope more people try it as a result.

                  1. re: Gonzocook

                    Steve: yes, I agree, in Almaty: Assorti is probably the best available. If I have to have the food I am ordering explained on a forum as you suggest then my point is proved.
                    Mike R: It was a hotdog wrapped in dough: nothing special.
                    scrambledeggs:" menu isn't confusing, 100% normal?" define 100%
                    Gonzocook: I don't understand what you disagree with. Confusing menu? check. Confused waitstaff? check.
                    I like the ambience of the place but there's some kind of disconnect between what they think they are doing and what is happening. I'm delighted others had such wonderful experiences at cafe Assorti. With the warm weather coming it should be a great place to eat out-of-doors on their patio.

            2. So far, I think this place is a real find. Yesterday, I took out some pastries (vol-au-vent, rose, walnut thing, and bun filled with sweet cheese and raisins (this was my favorite)). It tasted delicious and home-made and not killer sweet the way American desserts are. This morning, I went there for breakfast. Good coffee! I had pancakes with sweet cheese which was sort of like blintzes. Delicious. My friend had blueberry pancakes, which were different than American pancakes, but good as well. I am looking forward to going there for lunch and dinner. I don't want this place to go out of business as it is tasty and unusual--so please Chowhounders--give it a try!