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Russsssssssian

December 25, 2007

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When I finally tucked myself into bed Saturday night, I couldn’t help but wonder: why couldn’t have been born Russian?

12/22/07, Brighton Beach, off the Q train

Hours before, when the sun was still up on the bright weekend morning, I tumbled out of bed eager to begin the day. I had a plan. I had an agenda. I was to meet Sergei in Brighton Beach. Earlier in the week, Sergei had offered to show me around his neighbourhood, a land filled with Russian markets and restaurants. Coincidentally enough, I had visited Brighton Beach for the first time just two weeks earlier. It’s not often I make the hour long trek from Manhattan, but as my first visit was quite the experience, I was excited to make a return trip.


Brighton Beach Avenue

First off, I must say a humungous THANK YOU to Sergei for spending his entire day with me. Aside from introducing me to a fantastic restaurant, an impressive selection of food, nearly every single market in the neighbourhood, a walk along the beach and a cuppa tea, he was indeed great company. Hooray! :)

For lunch, we stopped in at Ocean View Cafe, right on Brighton Beach Avenue. The menu was in both Russian and English, which makes it somewhat easier to decipher…but still, without the help of a native Russian or a good understanding of Russian food, you’d still be pretty lost. Luckily I had Sergei. Per his recommendation, I first started with a glass of compote. A mild, cherry based fruit drink made simply from boiled cherries, water and sugar. It’s not too sweet, which was the main selling point for me. Another plus was the two dozen or so soft pitted cherries at the bottom of the glass. I can imagine what a great dessert this would make if the drink (with the cherries and all) was frozen into a popsicle! After the compote, I moved on to bottles of Heineken…which to my delight, went very well with the dishes we ordered!

Soon after we arrived at the restaurant, we were joined by Sergei’s friend, and a few other friends that friend brought along. They were all Russian! And as they spoke to one another in Russian, I couldn’t help but think, gee, that’s just sooo cool! Hehe. Accents. I really like accents. All accents! Oh. Except for Chinese accents. Sigh. Haha. Yeah. Chinese accents…perhaps the least attractive of all accents. British, Australian, and now we can move Russian up to the top of the list – I like ’em all! But this is not a blog on accents, yes? So we will go back to food. After we placed our orders, the waiter brought out a basket of bread, napkins, forks and knives, all laid on top of each other. “This,” Sergei declares, “is Russian service.” Hehe. The brown bread was my favourite of the two, simple and nutty. I noticed the others ate it with smears of butter and a sprinkle of salt, so I proceeded to do the same.

There was much to pick from on the menu, and as you could imagine, I had a terrible time deciding…my eyes are much too enormous for my stomach! So instead of for just a single entree, I ordered one entree for myself, split another entree with Sergei, started with a bowl of soup, and then finished off with a few cherry varenikis. That is what you call strategic planning! Solyanka was the soup of choice, a chunky hearty creation with plenty cuts of various meats such as ham, veal and sausages. The soup had a distinct tomato flavour and a well received sour tang that I later on learned was from the addition of pickles and pickle juice. My favourite part was the abundance of big black pitted olives, which provided a welcome contrast both in terms of flavour and texture to the heavier fried meats and the broth itself. The soup was served along with slices of lemons, and a silver cup of housemade sour cream which Sergei urged me to stir into the soup. The cream melted easily like butter, turning the soup a lighter shade, thicker, and much richer in texture. From now on…sour cream must go in all my soups!

Sergei and I split the beef and mushroom crepes, which would turn out to be my favourite dish of the day. Goodness, these were amazing, I’d make a trip back here for the crepes alone! The crepes were the perfect thickness – not so delicate that they’d easily fall apart, yet not too thick as to overwhelm the dish. Crisp and lacy edges all around and a creamy savoury filling of the most wonderful sort. I’m sure there was much more than simply beef, mushrooms and cream that went into this dish, but I am sorry to report that I was too busy gobbling down the deliciousness that it was to pay attention to incorporated herbs or spices. But I will be back. And next time I’ll take notes, cause maaaannn, it was nutso. Steam rose from the innards as I sliced right through the heart of the crepe, the crisp skin giving way to a generous fill of ground beef mingled with chopped mushrooms all bathing in an earth, warming cream. This dish makes me wish winter would last forever.

I was debating between the beef stroganoff and a rabbit dish for the main entree, but Sergei made it easier by suggesting that we order both and share a bit of each. Sharing, as I have quickly come to learn, is the best way to go :) Silly you may think, why travel all the way out here for beef stroganoff? BECAUSE. IT IS SO GOOD! The meat, holy shizzles. I haven’t had too many dishes of beef stroganoff in my life, but if all of them are resemble this particular one you see above, then I should be eating more! The meat is not fork-tender per se. Not like braised beef where you poke and the just faalllll apart. But it is indeed tooth-tender. Yes. You spoon up some of the beef along with that creamy meaty sauce and a bit of the potatoes and put it all in your mouth. Smooosh. You may attempt to chew, but even before you do so the whole mass simply goes all bezerk and melt at the touch of a tooth. Yet another winter dish. This makes me really look forward to the cold days!

The stewed rabbit was equally tender. The menu said it comes with a “white sauce,” but what came on the plate was a carrot and onion studded broth based sauce made richer with cream. Oh cream, I like how it is used with great luxury in all these dishes! Oh! You can also opt to have these entrees with fried instead of mashed potatoes, but I was in a soft, moooooshy mood. Plus, I think mashed went better with the heavier sauce on the stroganoff.

By the time I tucked away my last bit of the entrees I was holybeshjeakhdals stuffed. But Russian food is so cool! And even though my tummy said, or rather, screamed, NOOOOOOOO. My eyes said YESSSSSSS. So for that day, I did my mind well and listened to my eyes. I lifted my fork with a heavy hand and great pleasure to monch monch on the cherry vareniki, ordered by Segei’s friend. Is this dessert or is it an entree? I think you can go either way. The vareniki comes with various fillings, you can go sweet or savoury, or even take a cheesy route if you so desire! These cherry stuffed dumplings were boiled and served with a sweetened cherry based sauce. All sweet, but not too sweet at once? Does that make sense? I have a feeling if this was an American dish, I’d die from a sugar high. But. Because other cultures can eat sweet and make sweet without offering diabetes and heart attack and whatnot along with the bargain, this ‘dessert’ could comp as a fulfilling meal.

And that was lunch.
That maybe accounted for 20% of what I ate that day.
I could have tried to eat everything in this neighbourhood, but rest assured, there will be many, many return visits!

After our (very filling) meal, Sergei and I parted ways with his friends and we went off to explore the markets. And holey moley was there much to explore. Our first stop was at Gold Label Gourmet Foods, just a few blocks away from the restaurant. The nice thing about this area is that all the good stuff is condensed along Brighton Beach Avenue, making it easy to navigate your way around.

The first thing that came to mind was, whoooah, sensory overload! There was tons to look every where I turned.

And everything was new, everything was exotic. And yes, there were many questions. Pastries of every size, shape and sort…

…no less than half a dozen soups. That’s hot borsch above being pour out from one huge pot to another. There was pea soup, solyanka, various vegetable soups, and hearty stews.

In the freezer section I bought packages of various varenikis, I think I’ll be retiring my staple of Chinese dumplings for a bit while I sample my way around all these Russian dumplings…

…I also made sure to get bags of cheese and beef & pork pelmenis…how can there be so much food that I’ve never even heard of?! Even as I scoured my want through the market with Sergei’s guidance, I could not help but feel that I was only scraping the lightest surface of Russian food. Surely, there must be much more to learn?

At the prepared foods counter, Sergei pointed out each and every item, giving a delicious crash course in their fried goodies. Seeing as I could only point and no order (cause the ladies behind the counter only spoke Russian), Sergei helped order a few treats: sirniki, a farmer’s cheese based pancake, and two other pancakey-esque creatures, blinchiki, one stuffed with raisins and another cherries (cherries seem to be a common theme in Russian foods!). The rectangular item on the bottom left is UNIDENTIFIED. I do not know. I took the pastries home to share with Robyn later on in ths night. We sample them all, but could not, simple could not, figure out what this was! It was bland, heavy and tasted of not much at all. I suspect these treats would be most delicious fresh out of the frying pan, but after sitting around all day the quality greatly diminishes.

Near the row of desserts, I couldn’t help but be atttacted to the very pretty, if not dainty looking display of zefirs that looked to be a cross between meringues and marshmallows. Sergei tried to explain them to me, but there really is not substitute for actually tasting it yourself. So taste we did! I ate the zefir when I met up with Robyn later on in the night and you know what? I’m not sure I like it. It was like marshmallow that didn’t quite make it’s way there. At first touch, they had the feel of a marshmallow, the bounce of one. But then I bite…and it didn’t chew. It simply broke off into two neat, albeit sticky pieces. But it didn’t have the pull I craved, the desire. It just. Was.

Sergei also pointed out a box of biezpiens, little treats much akin in taste and texture to a chilled farmers’ cheese. The cheeses are sweetened with flavours like chestnut and hazelnut, they’ve even got fruit flavours such as peach, kiwi and strawberry. The rectangles are then dipped in chocolate and eaten either straight out of the freezer or refrigerated. Like mini chocolate covered cheesecake squares…gone Russian.

Squares of cheese for dessert? I thought to myself. Oh, but oooh, that was only the beginning! Seconds after dropping the biezpiens into our basket that was growing heavier by the minute, Sergei picked out a clear plastic box. “Cheese,” he said. I looked and asked, “how do you eat this?” “With a spoon,” he replies. Hehe. I love a culture where soft raisin studded sweet cheese spooned out of a container constitutes dessert. The texture is similar to whipped cream cheese made both lighter and sweeter. But you know how you’d never eat spoonfuls of cream cheese for dessert? This you would eat. By the spoonful, by the finger swipe, and even by the toast point dip.

Wasting no time, we finished off our visit to the first market and then flew on to M&I International, a dizzying emporium of Russian food.

Cheese! + Fried!

Funny, now that I think of it, but did not really notice at the moment. The music was Russian, the voices in the air were Russian. The people were Russian. But I didn’t feel out of place for a minute. Perhaps I would have if Sergei were not there leading and explaining everything to me.

Kavass. Ingredients: water, malt, sugar, yeast, and raisins

We first passed a cooler section loaded with various brands of kvass, a fermented malt based drink. Sergei was debating between two brands, when I heard a women who brushed past us assertively declare in a quiet but confident tone, “ajdshlkjsafhsakjdhflsajdf.”

Or that’s what it sounded like to me.
She spoke in Russian.
Thank god Sergei is fluent!

It turns out that she proclaimed the drink held in his right hand to be superior. She said it was so goon in fact, that we ought to buy three! The kvass should be drunk very, very cold, like beer. It’s got just the faintest fizz with the colour of rootbeer and a near medicinal flavour. It tastes as if it should be healthy. But I doubt it is. I don’t know if I like it very much either…too ‘rooty’ tasting? Not sure if that makes sense, haha. Perhaps I should give it a second try.

We made our ways through enormous crowds of people (and you thought Sunday mornings at Costco in Hawaii was bad!!) my eyes nearly exploded from their sockets as I saw the variety of pastries and bread offered. SO MUCH TO SEE!! I could have gone the whole day without blinking my eyes if I didn’t stop to remind myself to do every once in a while.

“The pastries here are very good,” Sergei noted. Ooooh? They were?!Then off to the pastry section it was! At the top left of the busy counter, he pointed out a line of tall triangular pastries. Those he liked. Very much so. I was advised to try them. Pastry advice, of all sorts, I welcome with a very open mouth.

The pastries shatter with the cut of a knife, flaky shells breaking into a sticky meringue lined innards dotted with walnut halves and raisins. Robyn and I ate one at room temperature and another heated in the oven. Much better warm. I don’t know the name of this pastry, but it is a wonder to look at, no? I love how Russian pastries incorporate many nuts and dried fruits. Even when nuts and fruits are used in American desserts, they are most often done so with a lighter hand, placing more emphasis on the cake/dough/pastry itself. But here, the nuts and fruit compose a substantial bulk of the sweet.

We edge along the bakery counter where I eyed what I thought to be a gorgeous walnut cake…

…however it was only beautiful by sight, as the slice I purchased (top left) was both dry and extremely heavy. On the big circular ball you see was another dense, pastry of sorts. Also on the bland side, rolled in chopped nuts. The sweet was of the thick and pastry sort. It came in various shapes: logs, square and balls. As for the mysterious square on the right? Read on!

As the lady packed up my order and handed it over the counter, I gasped out loud as I saw the lady next to her cut a slice of carrot cake. IT WAS UNLIKE ANY CUTTING I HAVE EVER SEEN. You see, the carrot cake was simple, as you can tell from above. One enormous piece. No frosting. Unadorned. Simple. It was uncut when I placed my order and I didn’t give it a second thought. Stupid of me. Cause when the customer behind me ordered it, and the counter lady cut it, it was all I could do from moaning, “uuuuuughhh,” and drooling all over the floor. THE CRUST! She made the cut and the crust CRACKLED. Noooo. It CACKLED! Like a wickedly delicious laugh I could not get enough of. Crazies.

“Oooooooo,” I said to Sergei, and semi pointed.
He got my point, that was all that mattered.
And in less than a minute, I found myself with another treat in hand: one and half pounds of carrot cake.
Smiles all around!

After a brief stop at the Brighton Bazaar and many more moments of, “ooos” and “ahhhs,” and Sergei’s many patient answers to my never endings streams of “what is this?” what is that?” “omg, lets get that!!” we wound back up at his place for a hot tea, the travel channel and the most awesomest carrot cake of my life.

I am telling you.
MOST AWESOMEST.

So it turns out that the BEST CARROT CAKE OF MY LIFE was found in a Russian Supermarket. You know, really, I thought it would be in a Manhattan bakery, a hotsy totsy restaurant, perhaps at my all time favourite bakery Europane in Pasadena. But no. It was at the market. And you must trust me on this one, if nothing else. The cake was INCREDIBLE. A thin, super crisp crusty surface and innards that will blow your mind if nothing else. Thick forests of shredded carrots (not the thin shredded carrots you find in American carrot cakes, but thiiiick shredded), handfuls of walnut chunks and tons of raisins, of both the dark and golden breed. The cake itself? Incredibly moist with soft tender crumbs. Lucky for us, we purchased the cake fresh out of the oven…it still was a touch warm when savoured with tea. The best part? NO FROSTING. I love good cream cheese frosting, but good frosting is hard to come along unless you make it yourself. So until then, it is best to do without frosting. It’s all for the better. Because this cake was so splendid, so memorable, that frosting would be terribly unnecessary and just serve to do nothing but detract from the cake.

When I return, I shall have beef & mushroom crepes and a lot of carrot cake.

Rooftops in Brighton Beach, Saturday Afternoon

I left Brighton Beach early in the evening. Very full. And very content. Exhausted too. It was an eye opening day not only because I learned a great deal, also because I had excellent company! I even got to see the beach – something I did not expect to do two days before Christmas. Granted, it was not my Hawaii beaches, but it was beach nonetheless! I also came back about two pounds heavier. Oh well. All in the name of food and learning, right? ;)

When I arrived back in Manhattan, the city was dark, it was night. I sent Robyn a message, “come over, I’ve Russian snacks for you!” (or something to that extent). And we met up at my apartment an hour later to sample them all.

We also did some memorable fooding that night!
But that’ll be saved for another post :)

Oceanview Cafe
290 Brighton Beach Ave.
Brooklyn, NY 11235
(718) 332-1900

Gold Label Gourmet Food
281 Brighton Beach Ave.
Brooklyn, NY 11235
(718) 743-3900

M&I International Foods
249 Brighton Beach Ave.
Brooklyn, NY 11235
(718) 615-1011

Brighton Bazaar
1007 Brighton Beach Ave.
Brooklyn, NY 11235
(718) 769-1700



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