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I've always loved Eastern European food. My Lithuanian grandmother was a wonderful cook, with a constantly-in-use, steamy, pungent kitchen (I still judge all meat blintzes against hers, and they usually come up wanting). Starting, as a child, with family treks to the Russian restaurants on Clement Street (our favorite: the late-lamented Miniature Bakery Restaurant), I frequented Polish, Romanian, Hungarian places, whatever I could find, with happy results. (In Cold War years, Russian establishments were often cagey: In Los Angeles, they billed themselves as "Continental" restaurants.)
San Francisco, CA 94118
Region: Richmond (Inner)
Meat piroshki $2.15
Siberian meat pie $2.50
Pelmeni in broth $8.95
Blini with smoked salmon $6.95
Open Tuesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday until 7 p.m. Closed Monday.
Muni: 31, 44
Noise level: low to moderate
So I wasn't surprised that I thoroughly enjoyed the food on my recent trip to Russia, Estonia, and the Ukraine. It's been almost 15 years since the breakup of the U.S.S.R., and, as my favorite guidebook crowed, "If you have not visited Russia since the Socialist era, it is time to be flabbergasted at the sight of over 1,000 eating establishments in Moscow alone." Despite reports of miserable food and worse service during the Intourist era, and terrible shortages for many years after the breakup, I found myself wishing, as I did when I visited Berlin for the first time in the early '90s, that I'd been there at least twice before: prior to 1991 -- or 1989, in Berlin's case -- and in the years directly after, before capitalism had taken hold and lined Friedrichstrasse in old East Berlin with chic boutiques and New Arbat in Moscow with neon-lit casinos.
Still, though I yearned for memories of the GUM department store before it, too, became an arcade of chic boutiques (wherein I purchased two plastic bracelets made in India and pre-priced in rubles, euros, and pounds) topped with a food court (where I dined on succulent and inexpensive golubtsy, aka stuffed cabbage), I was happy to be offered delicious food on a daily basis. There were wonderful soups, including many borschts; almost all were varieties of cabbage borscht, including a Ukrainian version served with savory pampushky, which are little doughnuts. (The only beet borscht I had was in a private home.) I also enjoyed potato soup, beef broth with tiny meatballs, various creamed soups (of turnip, pumpkin, and cauliflower), rassolnik (made with pickle juice), and the delightful, tart schi (made with sorrel).
The only really bad soup was one served in the only bad meal I had, in the otherwise thrilling Ukraina Hotel, housed in one of the famous Gothic wedding-cake Seven Sisters skyscrapers constructed under Stalin (and, as I've always said, I hate Stalin but I love Stalinist architecture). It was an indeterminate sludge, which, the waiter told us, was mushroom soup, information that didn't make any mushroom taste suddenly leap into perspective. I could, however, identify the flavor of the rock-hard chicken Kiev that followed, from which all the butter had mysteriously escaped: "Swanson's," I said, nonchalantly.
But elsewhere there were other, delicious versions (including one stuffed with mushrooms as well as butter), and there was chakhokhbili, a spicy Georgian chicken dish (many people say Georgian cooking is the best to be found in Russia), and plov, an Uzbekistan pilaf, and the requisite stroganoff.
Travel worked its usual magic (what I wanted to do, after, was more travel), as did the food: What I wanted, when I came home, was more Russian food. I invited my family to join me for dinner at Cinderella, on Balboa, but my sister was driving up from her vineyard in Paso Robles and was sure to be tired from the journey, so they talked me into bringing them takeout.
I had an immediate positive reaction to the place as soon as I walked in. The first room read "bakery," with its serried ranks of baked goods in a glass case (and an assortment of salads, smoked fish, and pickles in a small refrigerated case); the second, off to the left, "café," with mirrored walls, wood chairs, and white-linened tables. The rooms were both modest, homey, and simple, but radiated a lovely feeling of order and cleanliness. The menu, packed with many of the things I wanted to eat, offered more than a dozen appetizers and salads (including house-made pickles, marinated vegetables, assorted fish and cold-cut plates), five soups, 10 entrees, and numerous variations on my favorite dumplings, pelmeni and vareniki, as well as a list of blini (crepes served with sides), blinchiki (rolled blini, aka blintzes), piroshki, and Siberian-style pies.
I started by asking for borscht (a beet-and-cabbage version), spinach soup, and pelmeni in broth, a request that was, oddly, denied: "They'll fall apart before you get home," I was told, and was offered frozen pelmeni instead, which I declined, ordering rassolnik soup in their place. I chose several baked savories: fried piroshki stuffed with meat, a glossy baked mushroom piroshki, and two flaky versions, one cabbage, one spinach and feta. (I thought about trying the marinated mushrooms, for something sharp and vinegary, but skipped them after being told the main courses came with homemade pickles and coleslaw.) For entrees, leg of lamb, golubtsy, and the inevitable stroganoff (again, oddly, a server recommended I take all this unheated, "since it'll cool down on your way home"; I didn't point out that it's easier to reheat things that are warm, and, in any event, most everything, nicely packaged in Styrofoam, stayed quite warm indeed. It was a strangely lazy suggestion.) From the beautifully displayed pastries, I chose a slice of almond cake, a square of vatroshka (a cheese pie), and a kartoshka, a fat chocolate-glazed rum roll.
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