It's the Turkish restaurant at our Sofitel hotel and as such, the place oozes
swank. The walls are decorated with faux Turkish paintings, the Italian
chandeliers hang above and between the tables, and the recessed lights have been
dimmed in a way that makes the white leather of the booths glow with plush.
Carefully fractured pottery has been placed in eye-catching corners and by the
entrance, a river of cocoa grains runs through a bed of burlap and multicolored
shards of glass. The ambience is completed with Turkish music which seems to
have the right amount of ethnic and the right amount of modern. Nothing has been
improvised in this place, which would make this restaurant fantastic if only
our waitress came to our table when I call her.
She's looking at me. Well, we are looking at each other, but when I beckon her to our table,
she looks away. I should be, like Tom, looking at the menu, but I have my eyes set on this girl. The one with the petite sinuous body wrapped in the velvet, skin-tight uniform that leaves nothing to the imagination. While the manager whispers instructions in her ear, I examine her uniform. It's a red maxi-dress with colorful embroidery along the v-neck cut and around a low waist which accentuates her curves. She looks very young, almost too young to be waiting tables and the freckles, the braid and the bangs that brush her eyelashes every time she blinks, give her a babyish air.
When Tom finishes reading the menu, he looks up and before he even raises his hand to
call her, the waitress is by our table, greeting us, asking us what we would like to drink. I order a beer but she is not interested. Tom orders two beers and suddenly, she is.
Although we are the only customers at a restaurant that has a capacity of 100 clients, the
beers take awhile to arrive and when they do, they are slightly lukewarm.
I say, "thank you," the waitress doesn't reply. Ok, I say, "spasiba," and I get something close to a smirk, but truth to be told, her face looks more like she just swallowed an apricot whole. Tom says, "spasiba" and she is all smiles. I'm getting the hang of this. Either she doesn't think that I'm Tom's wife but rather a "paid companion" of the sorts who come to the hotel to offer their services to businessmen and because of this, she refuses to acknowledge me, or she is not used to having female customers ordering their own food because that’s a man’s job. Either way, I'm not bothered. I'm curious and slightly confused, but not bothered. Not yet, anyway.
She stands in front of our table and looks nowhere but in our direction. Yet, when I call her
to ask for some bread, she looks at her shoes. I ask Tom to look at her and in seconds she is taking his order.
We order, correction, he orders chorek, which is the local bread (a round thick chunk of dough baked in clay ovens called tamdyr). A long while passes before she brings a tray of chorek and fresh hummus. I say, "spasiba," again and she swallows another apricot.
The bread is just out of the oven and the hummus is as fresh as it can be. Tom finishes his
portion before me, but I'm thoroughly enjoying my bread and decide to take my sweet time and savor bread and hummus. I'm halfway through my combo, I still have bread and hummus left on my plates, when the pretty waitress takes my bread away. I catch the plate midair. “I’m Still Eating," I say, but again, she doesn't say anything and proceeds to take away the other plate. My hummus.
"I'm Still Eating," I repeat, as we both struggle to take the plates from each other. I want to
finish my bread, I want to eat the last bit of hummus but this woman seems to have different plans. I don't think so.
"I'm Still Eating," I say.
"Stop Chorek," she replies.
"Why?" I ask.
"Hot Food Coming. No more eating bread," she says.
It Doesn't matter that the hot food is coming. I want to finish my bread, but she is adamant that I have eaten enough bread and it's time for me to eat hot food. I'm not as amused as I was earlier. Now I'm thinking National Geographic. I'm recreating one of those episodes in which an African Savanna lioness eats her kill under a Baobab tree, only in my imagined documentary, she is dragging not a carcass but a plate of chorek to a secret cave where she can dip it in her hummus in peace.
I win the wrestling match and she lets go of the plates, so suddenly that I almost hit my face with the dishes. She's not amused either. I’m breaking a dinner etiquette rule; the one that dictates that once the main entrée is ready, the patron ought to stop eating anything else.
The food takes forever, but we know this is a good sign, an indication that nothing is being
thawed, everything is fresh and made especially for us. And it is delicious and over-priced and tastefully displayed. Everything on the plates and around the restaurant, is there to please the senses, even the uniforms of the waitresses and the waitresses themselves who seem to have been chosen based on their physical attributes.
So here is a short list of a few things I have learned about eating out in Ashgabat:
1. If we want to eat cheap, we need to go to the Ruski Bazaar (the open air market). Food at the hotel is dear.
2. If we want to drink cheap, we drink water. A glass of wine goes for 40 to 60 manats, 15 to
20 dollars, which is a few bottles of good ol’ Rex Goliath back at home
3. Bread on the table doesn't necessarily mean a chunk of butter. You have to ask for butter
and be ready to get funny looks.
4. We haven't had any waiters so far. It seems that waiting tables is a woman's job and that ordering food is a man's.
5. Do not tip. Tipping brings about a notion of social inequality that doesn't gel too well with national pride.
6. Don't let a pretty face fool you. These women are tough as nails and if you don't stand your
ground, they'll take the bread and the hummus out your mouth if they feel so inclined.