Wood-oven trail, stop #3: The twenty-foot grill in Baku

Posted Friday, December 25th, 2009

Baku, Azerbaijan is a chaotic mix of new construction amidst the detritus of earlier layers of construction. A few remnants of ancient Baku have been turned into a display piece, lovingly preserved as a Unesco world heritage site.

Baku seems to have rather mixed feelings about preseving its more recent past. In 1900, a third of the world’s oil came through Baku and a lot of Baku was built with the money from that boom. Today though, most of it is in poor repair and it’s being torn down at a breakneck pace. Baku today has a new oil boom. It’s the starting point of the trans-Caucuses pipeline, and once again the money is flowing. Almost everything is being built, rebuilt or torn down; the city is full of scaffolds and hammering and dust.

One casualty of all this rush to modernize is the wood oven. It still exists in the countryside and in people’s back yards but it’s not  fashionable enough to survive in the city, except in ethnic or upscale restaurants. Accordingly, directed by the indefatigable Nino, we turned our attention to Sultan, the swanky Turkish restaurant around the corner from our apartment.

Sultan has an entire oven dedicated to bread. The breads are light, tender, and tasty; just right for wrapping around grilled vegetables or scooping up hummus.


But the bread oven is in the back room. The star of the restaurant is the charcoal grill: it’s twenty feet long and runs the length of the granite counter at the front of the restaurant. Aslan presides over the grill like an amiable samurai: focused, active and calm. Everything we had was simply and quickly cooked. If this is any indication of what we’ll find in Istanbul, the only question will be whether we’ll have enough time for everything.

But first… on to Tbilisi!