Restaurant Review: Toné Café

A note about my restaurant reviews: New York City counts many Eastern European restaurants scattered across the five boroughs, most of them ignored by restaurant critics and diners alike. I intend to visit as many as I can and report!

Do you remember Georgian Bread? At a time when Georgian restaurants in NYC were a rarity (no Pepela or Oda House back then), this Brighton Beach bakery turned out good khachapuri made from scratch. Fast forward a few years: the former owner has retired, and the bakery, under new ownership (“your new taste”, as the facade brags in approximate English), was extended to include a sit-down restaurant and garden next door. The place is now called Toné Café, after the tandoor (თონე / tone in Georgian) that takes pride of place in the middle of the kitchen.

With all the recent competition, does this forerunner of the New York khachapuri fad still top the podium of cheese bread goodness? Does the place still justify the trek to Brighton? Read on!

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Restaurant Review: Kebeer

A note about my restaurant reviews: New York City counts many Eastern European restaurants scattered across the five boroughs, most of them ignored by restaurant critics and diners alike. I intend to visit as many as I can and report!

Uzbek Cuisine - KebeerIf you go to Brighton Beach with any regularity, you’ve probably passed by Kebeer Draft Bar and Grill a dozen times. Its location at the corner of Brighton Beach Ave and Coney Island Ave is hard to miss, and yet if you’re like me, you probably never paid much attention to it. Maybe because from the outside, Kebeer tries pretty hard to pose as a burger joint. One side of the storefront reads “Burger Shop”, and there are pictures of hamburgers all over the place. The menu boards outside advertise burgers and hot dogs. And beer, the place’s other specialty. Hamburgers in Brighton Beach, the neighborhood where people don’t understand how meat can be “rare” if it’s available on the menu every day. How many pints of beer do you need to drink in order to eat their shoe-sole beef patties, you might wonder…

Uzbek Cuisine - KebeerNow, prepare yourself for a shocking revelation: Kebeer is really…

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Restaurant Review: Café Glechik

A note about my restaurant reviews: New York City counts many Eastern European restaurants scattered across the five boroughs, most of them ignored by restaurant critics and diners alike. I intend to visit as many as I can and report!

Brighton Beach - Café Glechik

Recently, I reviewed Café Glechik of Sheepshead Bay, a mostly Ukrainian restaurant. Try as I might, it’s impossible to taste every dish on such a lengthy menu, and I only sampled a small but hopefully representative fraction of what they have to offer. To refine my review, I decided to pay a visit to the other (and orginal) Café Glechik, in Brighton Beach.

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Restaurant Review: Volna

A note about my restaurant reviews: New York City counts many Eastern European restaurants scattered across the five boroughs, most of them ignored by restaurant critics and diners alike. I intend to visit as many as I can and report!

Volna, which means wave in Russian, is the first restaurant you’ll see on the Brighton Beach boardwalk if you come from Coney Island. With its giant ice cream cone and the waiters standing outside to invite customers in, you can hardly miss it.

The menu, a behemoth fit to compete with Tatiana Grill, lists about 20 appetizers, 20 salads, 10 soups, 30 fish entrées, 30 meat entrées, plus a variety of sides, dumplings and desserts. Even though some of the dishes turn out to be unavailable when you order them, you have to wonder how the kitchen manages to remember how each of them is prepared. You will find all the Russian and Brighton Beach classics, but here are some of the more unusual offerings: smoked catfish, baked eel in spicy sauce, tuna Stroganoff, stuffed chicken neck, stuffed beef intestine, foie gras (again), baked escargots with cheese, and Belgian waffles.

We started the meal with a carafe of home-made kompot, a sweet but pleasant drink flavored with strawberry and pear (and an excellent vodka chaser).

From the cold appetizers, the basturma (spicy cured beef) was particularly good: tender, slightly marbled with fat, not too dry, and with a tasty spice coating. Of course it’s not not home-made, but this may very well be one of the best I’ve ever eaten. The Odessa-style eggplant reminded me of the one at Tatiana Grill, as well: I’d bet it came straight from a jar, with a cherry tomato and a branch of parsley as sole enhancements. $9 for something that you can get for less than $2/lb at the supermarket around the corner.

The herring, which must have come from the same supermarket, was even more disappointing: too salty, not really brined, and full of bones.

Far from saving the day, the khachapuri was impressively bland: the dish contained no salt at all, the cheese had no taste, and the dough was heavy. At least it was made to order, and it looks fine in the picture!

The Moscow-style sturgeon (another dish I had tried at Tatiana Grill) came in a clay pot with caramelized onions, potatoes, shitake mushrooms, a cream and wine sauce, and cheese on top. The fish had a bit of what I call a “muddy” taste, as sturgeon often does, but was cooked properly. There was a commendable effort in the preparation and it showed in the result.

The chalakhach (grilled lamb chops) was equally good. When the server informed us that it’s impossible to prepare lamb chops rare, I thought we were off to a bad start. Nevertheless, the meat arrived well done but not overdone; the marinated chops managed to be juicy and very tasty. The accompanying onion was thinly sliced as it should be, sprinkled with sumac, nothing like the inedible thick slices most places throw on all their kebab plates. The dish also came with a nice mix of multicolored cooked sweet peppers, red cabbage, and a slightly out of place but decent toasted pita.

The beef Straganoff was tasty and promising but the meat wasn’t cooked quite long enough — too bad. The sides plunged us back into a supermarket nightmare: plain and unsalted noodles straight from a box, nasty canned peas, and a ridiculous leaf of lettuce that no customer in their right mind would eat.

The cutlet Volna, a chicken cutlet stuffed with cream and mushrooms, Kiev-style, was a disaster. The excessive breading made it too crunchy by far, and it tasted like old deep-frying oil. The inside tasted so much of dill that it was borderline inedible — we barely touched the dish. It came with the nasty canned peas, fries that weren’t fried, and that stupid leaf of lettuce.

Finally, the meat vareniki, topped with yummy caramelized onions were just OK. The dough was fine and not too thick, but the filling was very mealy and dry, with not enough meat and fat. Were they home-made? You can buy so many kinds of dumplings in Brighton supermarkets that it’s hard to say (especially since these weren’t that good), but I’d be ready to believe they were.

We didn’t try the desserts. Except for the pancakes, none of them were really Russian.

It’s hard to give a rating to Volna. If you’re lucky enough to order the right dishes, you can enjoy a tasty, well-executed Russian meal. But if you go wrong, you’ll be dining on canned food and bad cutlets…

Cuisine: Russian
Picks: basturma, Moscow-style sturgeon, chalakhach
Avoid at all costs: cutlet Volna
Food: 5.5/10

Bakery Review: Georgian Bread

Georgian Bread, in Brighton Beach, occupies what could be the ultimate niche market. As you probably guessed, it makes Georgian bread. Two kinds to be precise: shoti and khachapuri. And this is pretty much it! Sure, there are a few homemade spreads and salads, grocery items like tkemali, adjika, pickled walnuts, sodas, and Georgian-style cheeses — all things that you can find in Brighton supermarkets with a much wider selection. But the two breads are the only bakery items, and they totally justify the trip.

I’ve been going to Georgian Bread for years, but it looks like I missed the blogging bandwagon. Law & FoodSerious Eats and Fork in the Road all recently published excellent posts about the place. Someone even posted a picture of the oven on Yelp.

Back to the breads:

The shoti is a long, flat yeast-dough bread baked in the toné, the Georgian tandoor. This bread is delicious when you eat it fresh from the oven, and Georgian Bread’s rendition is no exception (you have to get there early, as the bread is done first thing in the morning and partly sold to the few local Georgian restaurants). Unfortunately, its very shape means it goes stale quickly. In a perfect world, it would always be baked to order, but even in Georgia this is rarely the case nowadays.

The khachapuri, a cheese bread I’ve already talked about many times, comes in its most classic form, called Imeretian, with the cheese trapped inside the dough. See how the cheese appears in the center? This gives us an idea of how the man must be assembling the pies: the cheese is placed in the center of a disc of dough, then the dough is folded like a purse, the knot of extra dough in the center is cut off,  and maybe the whole thing is flattened a bit to its final shape. This is why you don’t see any sealed edges.

Tasting time! The bread survived the return trip quite well and was still warm when we got home, which is good news as I wouldn’t recommend reheating it or eating it cold. This is certainly the most authentic khachapuri I’ve tasted this side of the Atlantic. Unlike what so many lazy restaurants seem to think, it does pay to make your own dough instead of using crappy store-bought pizza dough — surprise! The oozy cheese mixture, made with a blend of Georgian-style cheeses found at the store, has an unexpectedly light texture and the rich, salty flavor I’m usually looking for, slightly on the mild side. The dough is fairly airy and has a good bread taste.

I’m not going to give Georgian Bread a rating like I do with my regular Restaurant Reviews; it would be unfair to treat it like a sit-down restaurant when it’s really just a counter selling a few items. But needless to say at this point, it has my seal of approval!

Restaurant Review: Le Soleil

A note about my restaurant reviews: New York City counts many Eastern European restaurants scattered across the five boroughs, most of them ignored by restaurant critics and diners alike. I intend to visit as many as I can and report!

I continue my exploration of the Brighton Beach boardwalk with a visit to Le Soleil, formerly know as Winter Garden — a 180 degree turn of sorts, since soleil means sun in French.

I’d never been to the old Winter Garden, but the new incarnation is a curious mix: the outdoor porch area is filled with casual wooden tables and booths, while inside there’s the usual pseudo-classy Brighton Beach Russian dining room with pompous white tablecloths and chair slipcovers. You’ll also find a stage, a lounge area and a separate banquet room, just to provide something for everyone.

With its shrimp cocktail, grilled branzino and burgers, the almost reasonably sized menu could trick you into believing you’re not in a Russian restaurant. Certain signs don’t lie, though, such as the pervasive potato dishes, the numerous salads, or the kebab section. Beer lovers are offered no less than 114 options, and indeed the food seems to have been chosen partly with beer in mind. Oh, and in addition to Le Soleil and The New Winter Garden, the restaurant (or just the outdoor section, who knows…) boasts a third name, Draft Barn.

We chose to start with some non-Russian appetizers such as the mozzarella sticks (some sarcastic individuals might say that a dish that is both fried and made with lots of cheese has to be partly Russian). Nothing to write home about here, the whole dish was pretty bland, like only American industrial cheeses can be.

If seeing “Hunter’s Bites” on the menu fills your head with images of bold hunters in fur hats looking for wild boar or bear in the cold, snowy Siberian forests, prepare yourself to be disappointed: you’ll merely be getting chopped fried frankfurter with fries. That’s right, an appetizer served with fries — like all the entrées, apparently. The frank was OK, but the fries weren’t crispy.

Moving on to more Russian dishes, the herring, fresh from its supermarket plastic pouch, was fine. The canned black olives weren’t necessary:

The potato pancakes, served with fried bacon bits and goat cheese, were good without being remarkable.

Save for the kebabs (and the burgers) the entrées are heavy on pork. We tried the sausage combo, consisting of a white sausage (“slowly boiled coarse ground pork sausage, seasoned with a blend of spices created specially for Draft Barn”), a cheese sausage (“stuffed with imported German cheese”) and a Hungarian sausage (“smoked sausage, seasoned with Hungarian paprika”). All three were dry and mediocre, with the white one winning the Palm for both tasting and looking nasty. For a place that serves beer-friendly food, this is really sad. To add insult to injury, the “Home Style Mashed Potatoes” in the background were most likely a store-bought instant mix.

The chicken schnitzel was properly breaded but very bland — this was somewhat to be expected.

On the kebab front, the chalakhach was the lamb chops you can catch a glimpse of under the mountain of raw onion below. My request (both in Russian and English to maximize my chances) to have it done rare resulted in overcooked meat slightly less tough than a shoe sole. This really puzzles me: how can cooks serve burgers and steaks for a living and never have heard of meat cooked anything other than well done?

There were no desserts on the menu, and it’s probably better that way.

Cuisine: Russian
Picks: the beers
Food: 4.5 / 10

Restaurant Review: Tatiana Grill

A note about my restaurant reviews: New York City counts many Eastern European restaurants scattered across the five boroughs, most of them ignored by restaurant critics and diners alike. I intend to visit as many as I can and report!

With spring finally here, why not have dinner on the Brighton Beach boardwalk? Tatiana Grill, a spin-off of Tatiana next door, is one of the few restaurants offering tables on the promenade. If the terrace seems full, don’t panic, the resourceful staff will pull out more tables for you from the basement.

The menu probably counts over 200 items — each of them numbered, but out of sequence. The appetizers, organized in salads, cold, hot, soups and pelmeni, cover the whole spectrum of Russian cuisine and beyond. Here are some less expected dishes: salmon tartare with salmon roe, pickled watermelon, the unavoidable foie gras and a “wild fisherman hunter fish soup”. In the mains, Russian standards and shashlyks are complemented with Italian dishes, pasta, and seafood. The following piqued my curiosity: “lamb osubuku”, quail in sweet and sour sauce, 18 oz cowboy steak, “whole flounder fried to perfection”, fisherman’s net (baked oysters, “popcorn” shrimp, scallops). There’s even a sushi menu and a beer menu!

We started the meal with eggplant caviar “Po-Odesski” (Odessa style). Although it tasted fine, I suspect that it was a store-bought jar (hence the acidity) mixed with some fresh vegetables (hence the crunchy bits). You certainly don’t need to go to a restaurant to eat this.

I have similar doubts about the pelmeni. The dumplings themselves were very good but looked a bit too regular in shape, like the quality frozen hand-made dumplings you can find in the supermarkets of the neighborhood. But the big problem was the broth, which had that unmistakable Knorr flavor. Seriously, how hard is it to toss a bone and an onion in a pot of boiling water?

The khachapuri that came next saved the day. This was a single serving made of puff pastry (something you don’t really see in Georgia), baked to order. Simple but tasty, and perfect with vodka.

As a main course, I chose the “Moscow” sturgeon, partly in anticipation of a makeover (part of my series of dishes named after Eastern European cities). The sturgeon was baked with mozzarella and potatoes in wine sauce, and served with tomatoes and an edible flower, in a lovely fish-shaped dish. The whole thing was aptly executed and quite good. The fish had what I call a slightly muddy taste; this is more a reproach to sturgeon in general than to this particular preparation.

My comrades tried a couple of the shashlyks. The lyulya-kebab, ground lamb wrapped into flat bread, was okay, but mixed with too much onion. This seems to be a common mistake: chefs use excessive amounts of onion to make the meat feel juicier and airier, and then it overpowers the whole dish.

The shashlyk “Karski” consisted of small but very tasty lamb chops, cooked pink inside as requested. There was much left to desire in the garnish — does anybody really eat the coleslaw and onion slices thrown on the plate? I’m sure some additional garnishes were lurking somewhere on the menu. I remember seeing some pan-fried potatoes with chanterelles.

We didn’t save room for dessert, but the menu offered over 20 options, including pancakes, strudel, cheesecake and various classics. I would politely suggest, however, that they pay a little bit more attention to their Russian dishes instead of boasting homemade tiramisu.

As a final note, even though I wasn’t entirely convinced by the food, don’t let this review deter you from having dinner on the boardwalk. I did have a very nice evening!

Cuisine: Russian
Picks: khachapuri, “Moscow” sturgeon, shashlyk “Karski”
Food: 5.5/10

Restaurant Review: Skovorodka

A note about my restaurant reviews: New York City counts many Eastern European restaurants scattered across the five boroughs, most of them ignored by restaurant critics and diners alike. I intend to visit as many as I can and report!

First up, Skovorodka in Brighton Beach:

Conveniently located by the B and Q trains, Skovorodka, which means frying pan in Russian, looks fairly nondescript from the outside. Inside, it delivers the kind of kitsch one would expect from the restaurants in the neighborhood, minus the floor show: dark blue water glasses, frying-pan-shaped menus, more of the eponymous vessels hanging above the bar, and a lovely anniversary poster:

But it’s really the food we came for. The lengthy menu covers pretty much all the dishes a local would expect from a Russian restaurant, along with some classic Ukrainian and Caucasian dishes.

We started lunch with a khachapuri, a Georgian cheese-filled bread large enough for two. It had the delicious fresh taste of bread baked to order, and the generous cheese mixture was close enough to some of the renditions I tasted in Georgia.

Then came a solyanka, a mildly spicy and sour soup made with smoked ham and olives. It was alright without being memorable, and didn’t taste like it was made with fresh ingredients.

My main dish was a zharkoye. Although it was called goulash on the English menu for some reason, this is really a Russian stew cooked in a small earthenware pot. The stew was composed of very soft beef chunks and potatoes in a pleasantly greasy but slightly over-salted broth.

We also ordered pelmeni, Siberian meat dumplings with sour cream. Usually served in broth, these didn’t have much liquid but we didn’t mind. The filling, typically a blend of pork and beef, was light and juicy.

All in all, the fairly tasty, well-priced food makes this place a good choice if you plan to spend the afternoon in Brighton Beach or Coney Island. Service was pretty fast, but then, we were the only customers at the time of our visit… I would imagine there is more animation during dinner time. Like the party for Yura and Ella’s 45th anniversary for example.

And since no review would be complete without some kind of rating:
Cuisine: Russian
Food: 6/10
I tend to think that all sins can be forgiven if the food is good, so I won’t provide ratings for the decor or service.