Ukrainian Snapshot: 10 hours in Kiev, August 2012

Ah, the good old days of Aerosvit! New York-Kiev non-stop in a mere 10 hours, on a plane with nearly non-existent entertainment but at a reasonable price. I’ve used Kiev as a stopover on many trips, spending anywhere from a few hours to a few days there before heading on to Azerbaijan, Georgia, Uzbekistan, or just some other part of Ukraine. Back in August 2012, I was there for about 10 hours, on my way to Tashkent…

Being roughly 4 times less busy than Moscow’s Sheremetyovo and 6 times less busy than New York’s JFK, Borispol was a reasonably efficient airport. A mere 30 minutes after landing, I had already cleared security and picked up my suitcase. Once I’d stashed said suitcase in the baggage room, I hopped in a taxi. Another 30 minutes and I was in central Kiev, cool as a cucumber and ready for lunch.

Kiev - Lesya Ukrainka Boulevard - Mafia Restaurant Continue reading

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Ukrainian Snapshot: Odessa Airport, September 2005

Today I’m starting a new travel series: Ukrainian Snapshots. I’ve been to Ukraine many times over the past ten years. Back in the days before Aerosvit went bankrupt, the New York-Kiev direct flight was a convenient and reasonably affordable option whenever I planned to visit the former Soviet Union. Before the opening of its new terminal, Moscow’s notoriously disorganized Sheremetyevo did not have a transit zone and therefore required going through the masquerade of the visa process (until recently, your typical Russian embassy/consulate was a kind of cour des miracles where aspiring tourists proffered fake invitations, bogus travel insurance, variable amounts of money, and countless hours of their time to a grumpy and/or corrupt clerk, all to receive a piece of paper pompously called a visa). By contrast, Ukraine could be visited without a visa, and little Borispol is 30 minutes away from Kiev’s center (no contest with the 1-2 hours it takes to get from the airport to the city center in Moscow).

For this reason, and also because some of Ukraine’s less touristy destinations are more conveniently accessed from neighboring countries if you happen to already be visiting them, many of my trips to Ukraine were quite short; a couple days here and there. My last week-long trip actually goes back to summer 2006 (Crimea). So instead of presenting my Ukrainian travel stories in any particular order, I’ll focus each of my posts on a given place and point in time. As usual, don’t expect me to review many mainstream touristic curiosities — this is not a travel guide. I might also start another travel series in parallel. After all, with Ukraine International Airlines recently reviving the New York – Kiev route, there might very well be more snapshots to come in the future.

I’ll kick off this series with an anecdote: the Kiev-Odessa flight and the Tupolev 134. This may not have anything to do with food, but it sure qualifies as an adventure.

Plane to Odessa

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Restaurant Review: Caspiy

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!

Caspiy, in Sheepshead Bay, is not your typical Russian floor show restaurant, in that it doesn’t occupy half a block on the banks of the Bay, on Brighton Beach Avenue, or on the nearby boardwalk. Instead, the smallish railroad space is tucked at the intersection of Avenue Z and Sheepshead Bay Road.

Russian Cuisine - CaspiyThis is also a restaurant that’s realized it doesn’t need a humongous menu. You should still find something you’d like among the forty or so dishes that run the gamut of Russian cuisine and beyond.

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Restaurant Review: Onegin

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!

Onegin in Greenwich Village is the latest addition to the Russian restaurant scene. If we’re to believe the web site, it aims to offer “the finest Russian Fusion cuisine that Manhattan has to offer”, and the media have long been drinking the Kool-aid.

The interior keeps its promises of opulence, and Onegin is indeed a very pretty and comfortable restaurant:

The menu covers the usual Russian classics — blinis, smoked fish and meats, dumplings, borsht, chickens Kiev and Tabaka — plus some more “American” dishes such as braised short ribs or lamb shanks (of course one might argue that Russian cows and lambs have ribs and shanks, too). The brunch consists simply of the same menu without the main courses, and, apparently, without whichever half-dozen dishes that eighty-sixed the night before.

Before we start talking about the food, I have to say a word about the service, as it will considerably affect your dining experience. Even when the restaurant is half-empty, or even completely empty, the kitchen is terribly slow and has no sense of timing. Expect to wait 30 to 45 minutes and then receive a random number of dishes in random order. The waiters are very nice but incapable of paying attention. It’s like they never worked in a restaurant before: you can wave at them a good ten minutes while they’re standing 10 feet away from you. On another occurrence there wasn’t anybody in the restaurant who knew where the wine bottles were kept!

Let’s get back to the food and beverages. Onegin has an inspiring cocktail list. Among the things we tried, the Pomegrate Martini had a pronounced pomegranate taste but was a bit too sweet, while the Birch Imperial, which was supposed to contain birch sap, tasted like sweet champagne and not much else. There will also be a number of house-infused vodkas. I was only able to taste the honey-pepper vodka but it was very good.

Bread. On one visit, the rye bread was very good and the white bread, similar to a Russian baton, was just OK. The next time, both were stale, as if the staff had let them all dry out in their trays overnight.

The house-smoked fish delicacies consisted of a copious platter of three different fish. The salmon was excellent, cut into thick chunks the way I like it, its saltiness balanced by a piece of bread. The sturgeon was equally great, without any trace of that muddy taste I don’t like. The third fish, escolar, had a very firm flesh, and was a rather unusual choice, since it is known for its unpleasant health effects and doesn’t live anywhere near Russia as far as I know.

The blini with cured salmon were no different, with thick cuts of very soft fish, but the blini themselves were too sweet. In my opinion, there should have been just a pinch of sugar in the batter.

The salo (cured pork fat similar to Italian lardo) was way too salty, even eaten with the bread and mustard. The mustard, in the Russian style, was quite nice, strong and slightly sweet. Notice the crossed chive sprigs that seem to add an undeniable touch of elegance to most appetizers — had I kept them, I would have had a whole bunch at the end of the meal.

The trio of zakuski included tasty chopped herring (“tar tar”, the menu said), a kind of smelt pâté (which tasted like European sprat and was fine if you’re into that sort of thing) and chopped salo, just as salty as the one above. All were served with croutons.

The charcuterie was another great appetizer to share, probably my favorite of the lot. It was salty, but not excessively so (it is charcuterie after all). Great smoked sausage and kielbasa, good bacon, served with mustard, beet horseradish and a weird hot sauce better left untouched. This certainly didn’t need any canned green olives.

Then the salad Olivier was definitely the worst appetizer. The menu said “an old recipe, over a century in the making”, which is kind of true but rather pathetic. To keep the story short (more on this in another post), the recipe started as the signature dish in a high end Moscow restaurant, but all the distinctive ingredients (grouse, duck, crawfish, caviar) were slowly replaced with cheaper substitutes more readily available to Homo Sovieticus. What we got at Onegin was the terminal stage, the lame Soviet version. Smoked chicken, hard-boiled egg, potatoes, carrots and canned peas bound by a river of industrial mayo. Not surprisingly, the result was boring and just OK.

The ukha (“traditional fisherman’s soup”) was made up of chunks of salmon, potato, and carrot in an aromatic bouillon. There was nothing wrong with it, but it was a rather simple dish — one typically expects a little bit more variety in a fish soup.

The wild mushroom strudel was nice, if not all that hard to make. The puff pastry certainly wasn’t house-made (very few restaurants make their own) and I think the mushrooms were cremini and shitake, which aren’t wild! This is a criticism that could be addressed to 99% of American restaurants, actually. Look it up in the dictionary, folks: wild means “existing without human habitation or cultivation”. Cremini, portobello, shitake, or maitake do not qualify!

The veal pelmeni were good if nothing special. I’d say they were house made, because of their slightly irregular shapes. I also wish there had been more liquid in the pot.

When we tried to order the meat vareniki, our waiter informed us they only made meat pelmeni and that they’re the same, which is somewhat true but doesn’t explain why nobody fixes the menu. We had the potato vareniki instead. They tasted a bit too much like black pepper, but the filling was nicer than the all-too-common watery potato mush.

The beef Stroganoff managed to be cooked to well done without being tough, a rare feat. It was served with more mushrooms than one could possibly eat, some onions, and reduced cream that made the dish very rich. Here again, although the preparation was fine, the recipe was too simple to be exciting. And the kasha that accompanied the meat (it was supposed to be a side dish, but the kitchen mysteriously decided to substitute it for the mashed potatoes instead) was simply boiled.

Moving on to the desserts, the home-made napoleon with Bavarian cream wasn’t a napoleon at all. Instead of the expected layers, bavarian cream was just sandwiched between two sheets of a kind of cold puff pastry (the one that’s store-bought, remember?). The result was very ordinary.

The syrniki, tvorog pancakes, were made to order. They tasted nice but were mostly an excuse to eat the good cherry preserves and honey (an industrial honey blended with high fructose corn syrup)!

It is hard to rate Onegin’s food without taking into account the lackluster service, but I’ll try my best. Clearly, the food doesn’t match the expectations set by the rich decor. There’s nothing innovative about it, and I’m not sure what makes the owners believe this is Russian fusion (whatever that means). It would be more accurately described as traditional Russian food on elegant tableware. Note that most dishes were actually good, there just wasn’t anything outstanding, complex or really original.

Cuisine: Russian
Picks: house-smoked fish and charcuterie
Avoid: salad Olivier
Food: 7.5/10

Restaurant Review: Vernissage

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!

This time, we got out of New York City to visit Vernissage in Hawthorne, NJ. Located in an impersonal commercial mall space that does little to restore New Jersey’s tarnished image, the restaurant looks less than promising from the outside:

Little did we know that Vernissage, faithful to its name, was not a mere restaurant, but also a place of art and good taste, with statues greeting us in the entrance:

The dining room is in line with the large Russian restaurants you find in Brooklyn, complete with marbled walls, banquet tables and a stage for floor shows.

The fairly short menu consists of Russian classics: herring, Russian salads, pelmeni and pancakes are followed by kebabs and grilled fish (which is more of a Brighton Beach standard). And like several other places, it follows the mysterious trend of serving foie gras with no indication of how it’s prepared. There’s also an automatic $10 cover charge per person, for reasons unknown. For the art, maybe?

We started with some fried potatoes with mushrooms, which were fine for what they were — it would be hard to screw up such a simple dish.

We stuck to the tuber with potato dumplings, topped with fried onions. These were just OK and probably factory-made, with a rather watery stuffing.

I decided to compare their chicken tabaka to mine. I must say, in all modesty, that theirs fell short considerably: the meat was bland, the skin wasn’t crispy, and it was covered with burnt and overpowering garlic. The chicken came with more zucchini than I’ve ever eaten in a single day. and the bright green sauce on the picture was some kind of greasy pesto better left untouched.

Our second main course was chalakhach, grilled lamb chops, which arrived over well-done. We’d told the lone waiter that we wanted the chops rare, but I doubt he knew what it meant. I guess we could have returned the dish, but the whole lunch had already taken almost 2 hours, and the chances we could get our point across to both the waiter and the cooks were rather thin. I’m also still wondering how one can cook meat on a grill for so long and yet fail to get nice charred hatch marks.

In the Caucasus, this is the kind of dish that would be served with an assortment of grilled tomatoes, peppers and eggplants, or with a refreshing salad of tomatoes, onions and herbs. Here instead, Price Chopper must have been running a sale on green and yellow zucchini, as the squash seemed to accompany every single main dish.

I couldn’t resist taking a close-up of the surprising and ridiculous decoration found on each plate, which I theorize might be an attempt to create a sense of opulence by adding products that Homo Sovieticus rarely saw in the Motherland back in the day, like oranges:

We skipped dessert (I don’t even remember if there even were any on offer), finished our warm fruit juice (the restaurant doesn’t have an alcohol license — or a fridge, apparently), waited another half an hour for the check, and got back on the road to try to reach our destination before sunset.

Cuisine: Russian
Picks: none of the dishes we tried
Food: 4/10