Restaurant Name: Cafe Korea (Кафе Коре)
Nothing fancy, but some of the best food I've had in Astana.
Both times I have visited Cafe Korea have been for quick lunches in the middle of the day, and that seems to be the main focus of the restaurant. I have not explored the menu in any depth, but it is a refreshingly short menu. Dishes include basic Korean salads, soups, and noodle or rice dishes - basic Korean lunch food. And it is all excellent as far as I can tell.
I was here most recently on a very cold day after fighting the madness at Kazpost. My small group needed a quick bit to stave off the intense frustration that comes with retrieving mail at lunch hour and consequently suffering low blood sugar. Needless to say we did not expect much more than sustenance. Maybe it was my low expectations, but I was really blown away by the quality of my meal.
We ordered two salads - Kim Chi and a carrot salad with meat. The Kim Chi was obviously home-made and came out of a large jar stored in a chest cooler next to our table. It was moderately spiced and not the greatest Kim Chi that I've ever eaten, but fairly good. The cabbage was still a bit crisp (as I like it) and had an odd texture that was almost effervescent as if it was still in the process of pickling. I would order it again, but I've had better.
The carrot salad on the other hand was absolutely delicious. My wife and I fought over the last few bites. It was a bit too spicy for our lunch mate, but the pepper was not overwhelming for most people who enjoy a slight kick. The ratio was about 50/50 carrots to beef and all ingredients were fresh and tasty.
As a main course on this cold day we all ordered Kuksi, a spicy/sour noodle soup. The noodles were just fair, some sort of vermicelli rather than the flat glass noodles you get at some places, but they were abundant and well cooked. The broth of the soup was just perfect. It was a complex set of spicy, sour, and savory flavors that seemed a little different with every bite. That isn't easy to do with a soup, but it worked. The meat and veggies in the broth were ample, but I would probably prefer more veggies and fewer noodles. As simple as the dish was, it was some of the best food that I've had in any restaurant in Astana. Perfect for a cold day.
On a previous visit, we took a visitor who was staying at the Grand Park Esil hotel, which is just around the corner. We ordered tea, cognac, and an assortment of lagman, manti, and other small dishes to be shared by the table as snacks. All of those dishes were fine, but nothing stuck with me. The manti and lagman are both very nice large portions and the lagman had a good nutty flavor. I would certainly order it again, but I think I will be stuck on the Kukci for a while.
The service at this restaurant, like the cafe itself, is nothing special but it gets the job done. A single young woman sits by the cash register, takes orders, and brings food for the entire cafe. As small as the place is, nothing more is needed.
No English has been spoken on either of my visits, but the menu is simple enough to read through, particularly if you are at all familiar with Korean food. Food comes very quickly as does the check when it is requested. On the occasion that we ordered cognac, the waitress left the cafe to buy a bottle at the store down the block. In a town where wait staff love to say "that isn't available" it was kind of nice to see the effort.
This is a hole in the wall that could be missed very easily. Inside it is quite small, a single room with about five tables and seating for no more than twenty. The restaurant is clearly designed for a quick lunch and with little care for creating ambiance. I probably wouldn't take a date, but if you go alone you may end up sharing a table with other singles looking for a quick bite.
I would like to find more places like Cafe Korea in Astana. I know they are here, probably all around me, but it is hard to find them as an outsider with poor Russian and almost no Kazakh language. The food is simple, honest, and delicious and the price is extremely fair. The fancy Left Bank restaurants are great for evenings out, but this is ideal for a quick lunch.
Finding Cafe Korea could be a bit difficult. From the main Kazpost office, walk north across Abai (currently there is a Белый Ветер on the opposite corner). Keep walking up the block on the same side and you will pass two or three small cafes. This one is in the middle of the block and directly opposite a travel agent and driving school. It has (if I remember correctly) a simple red awning.