"I feel like I'm in Disneyland!" exclaimed Kathy as we stepped off the train onto the Brighton Beach subway platform.
"Yeah...if everything were written in Russian."
Brighton Beach is the Russian-saturated section way out on the southern-most tip of Brooklyn by Coney Island. You could say that it has a Disneyland-like quality to it in that it feels...unreal. You're no longer in America—you're in the land of signs written in Cyrilic. There aren't any people walking around in costumes meant to resemble popular characters from animated films, but we did see a decrepit life-sized display of what we think was supposed to be a male waiter, if the waiter had an ax blade stuck in his forehead and a disease that caused one of his thumbs to rot off.
Kathy and I walked to Cafe Glechik to meet up with Olia (our Russian guide), Jeremiah, Natty, Ian and Diana. The radiant sunflowers on the facade made me feel welcome and safe. Almost as though I were walking down Sesame Street. Little did I know that by the end of my meal an unprecedented amount of hard liquor would find its way down my esophagus.
But first, there was food.
Or first, there was compote, a drink infused with dried fruit, sugar, and red food coloring. What fruits exactly, I'm not sure—there was definitely some cherry action going on. It's quite sweet so you might want to water it down with something. Like water. Or vodka. You know, whatever you have on hand.
Out of all the assorted pickles, I was most interested in trying the watermelon. And now I know that a pickled watermelon tastes of 0% watermelon and 100% pickle. Pickling changed the original light texture of the flesh to something more like a pickle—dense, crisp but somewhat pliable, super-saturated with tart juices. Watermelon lends itself well to pickling. Think about that the next time you have a lot of watermelon and don't know what to do with it. Which I'm sure happens a lot.
Olia and Jeremiah had warned us about this dish before we even went into the restaurant. That for some inexplicable reason the salad stolichniy (or salad olivie?) came smothered in mayonnaise and adorned by a single cherry. From afar, it looked like an ice cream sundae (if the ice cream scoop were the size of a softball), but close up you could see it for what it truly was: a chopped up potato-carrot-egg-onion-etc salad bound together by mayonnaise and sour cream, doused in a thick, oozing mass of mayonnaise, and topped with a maraschino cherry. Why? We had no freakin' clue.
Jeremiah did the honors.
Oh, the salad tasted fine, like a lighter, tastier, not very potato-y potato salad. It's quite good as long as you're a fan of mayo (as I am). It just wouldn't win a beauty contest.
I loved the "Odessa" baked eggplant sauce, a semi-smooth (or semi-chunky, or smooth-chunky) blended mush of baked eggplant, tomato, garlic, olive oil, vinegar, and onion. Even though I'm not a big fan of tomato, it went well with the eggplant. I didn't know the sauce contained tomato at first (and its presence isn't apparent in the sauce's color), which made my first bite a little confusing; "Tastes like eggplant...no, wait, tastes like tomato...or eggplant...oh jesus I'm going crazy." After searching for the recipe, I'm glad to find out that my taste buds aren't completely useless.
Baked julienne mushrooms with cheese: there could be nothing wrong about this dish. Shrooms. And melty cheese. And a bit of crusty cheese action going on the top. The next step in deliciousness would be to roll this up in to a ball, bread it, and deep-fry it. In my dreams.
Vareniki with potato and mushrooms = light, bite-sized dumplings resembling wrinkled half-moons filled with mushroom mash, and in Cafe Glechnik's case topped with butter, sliced mushrooms, and crispy fried onion strips. We went through two orders of this.
Pelmeni "Siberian" were similar to the vareniki, but filled with a combination of ground pork and veal instead of mushroom goo and named "pelmeni" instead of "vareniki." I suppose that there are other differences; the main one I noticed was that pelmeni were more likely to be filled with meat than vareniki. If I hadn't been so focused on shoving the little babies into my mouth, I would've asked Olia more about the characteristics of the different dumplings.
Each order of dumplings (pelmeni or vareniki) consisted of 25 pieces, and each piece was easily eradicable in one or two bites, depending on the capacity of your mouth. The skin-to-filling ratio was perfect and the skin wasn't heavy or too thin—just enough to go with the little splodge of filling. Lighter than Italian pasta, but firmer than the skin of a Chinese dumpling. Not that this means anything to you if we're not all eating the same kind of Italian pastas or Chinese dumplings, but I'm trying to give a frame of reference..oh, how I try...
Pelmeni "Moscow" was described on the menu as "oven-backed with eggs & cheese." It probably took us a little too long to realize this meant "baked"—we couldn't help but continue to call it "backed." Nothing gets the chuckles going like a bit of language fail.
So imagine lots of little meat-filled dumplings suspended in a warm mass of gooey cheese and fluffy egg under a golden crust of coagulated egg and cheese. That's a whole lot of epic win.
Vareniki with sour cherries and varekini with sweet farmer cheese provided something dessert-like. There was nothing wrong with them—I just happen to prefer savory dumplings over sweet. Fruit-based desserts aren't usually my thing and I thought the sweet farmer's cheese could've used more sweet...although I suppose the point of it was to just have a light touch of sweetness and not suffocate you with sugar.
From the depths of nowhere came another plate of vareniki with meat topped with butter and fried oniony goodness.
Thus is the greatness of eating out with a big group; the freedom to order craploads of stuff because someone's probably going to eat it.
Oh, I said something about drinking alcohol, right?
While we were waiting for our food, Olia realized that out meal would not truly be a Russian meal without a giant bottle of vodka. So she got one. And since everyone knows I can't stand the taste of alcohol because it digs into the nerve receptors in my mouth, throat, and whatever other surfaces it may touch, and flogs the receptors with little whips made of distilled vitriol, all eyes were on me to see how my elastic face would react to the onslaught of 80 proof liquor.
- If anyone is wondering, I'm wearing a black turtleneck dress, not a black turtleneck...shirt. Why does this make a difference? I dunno. I wasn't emulating Steve Jobs.
Well, you know me; I fold like a wet noodle in under peer pressure. Over the course of the meal I ended up slogging down 2.5 shots. The scary thing is that the flavor became more tolerable the more I drank. After perhaps 1.5 shots I thought, "Hey, this burning sensation doesn't bother me as much as it did before." I think the alcohol deadened my tongue. That's the trick, isn't it?
So how did I feel after 2.5 shots? Not that bad, actually. I think I got a slight headache but I could walk alright and I didn't act any stupider than I normally would. Vodka fail. Tristan suggested that it's possible that I don't become conventionally drunk due to an unwillingness to let my inhibitions go. Definitely a possibility. Still, I do expect something to happen...it's just doesn't.
Maybe I'll try for 3.5 during my next outing to Brighton Beach. Mmm, alcohol-poisoned-boppy!