Sunday, February 15, 2009

Voyager Bien: Exotica Be Damned


After a painless return trip from St. Petersburg (helloo bottomless champers splits) and surprisingly edible food (not that it mattered with the fixins for bloody Finnish beers), we landed back in New York, just in time for my birthday night (ay)! Another jetlagged day and timezone later, I was back in LA - and back to the grind.
Thus began the lingering depression following an incredible vacay, the empty feeling as if it maybe never happened at all.
I wanted rabbit pie.
Katya's mushroom soup. Russian cottage cheese. Decent rye bread!
Yes, it was official. Withdrawl.
While the vodka selection and decor at Bar Lubitsch could keep me referencing what I already knew like a Disneylandish cultural snapshot, I craved the little things.
My first discovery came one rainy night stopping at Vendome Wine and Spirits after work. Since I peruse the shelves there like a shoe fetishist would the Half-yearly Sale at Nordstrom (I swear I am not an alchoholic.. just an enthusiast), I tend to find some exciting things now and again. (i.e. This is where I first found Pimento Dram, Strega, Velvet Falernum, Maraschino liquor, and an impressive selection of Unibroue's Canadian Belgian-style beers). So that cold and hopeless night when I was perusing the holiday brews I saw a familiar label peeking out behind a case of Chimay. It was a Baltika #6! I next moved to the vodka aisle (which I admit I usually pass). Sure enough, they carried a few brands familiar from my trip including Nemiroff, even in exotic honey & pepper. It struck me how ridiculous it is that I haven't even begun exploring LA for Russian imports at all, especially considering the prominence of Russian enclaves in my local neighborhoods.
Yet it was another surprise location comprising my largest Russian goods goldmine - The Jon's marketplace down the street from my apartment. To be honest I never went to this Jon's (also referred to as Ghetto Von's) because well, it is pretty low on the grocery food chain. But one day I stopped in to get cheesecloth for straining my limoncello, and I immediately picked up on the "otherness" of this market. The moment I saw advent calendars of Moscow's famous St. Basil's Cathedral I knew there were more surprises to be found here. The vodka-heavy liquor section carried Nemiroff's flavored vodka line in addition to Putinka, a slew of other Russian vodka brands, a selection of Russian wines (though these I have not craved), Baltika beer and another St. P brew donning the Palace Bridge on the label. Down the juice aisle I found cartons of Birch juice alongside морст (the cranberry drink I enjoy), and even non-alchoholic soda-like Kvass (rye beverage). It just never occurred to me that due to the mixed ethnicity of the neighborhood I could find my exotic fix a 10 minute walk from home at a chain grocery store.
And so I began searching Yelp for the best rated traditional Russian restaurant around. It seemed unanimous that Traktir (8151 Santa Monica Blvd, WeHo 90046 Tel: 323-654-3030) is the place to go. The warm wood/brick decor with shaker tables and chairs immediately felt cozy and authentically Russian. The [somewhat difficult] communication with our waiter reminded me of Russia even more. We ordered Baltika #3 beers and Pickled Vegetable Combination to start (pickled tomato, cucumber and cabbage). The pickles weren't as good as ones I had in Russia, but then, we also weren't shooting chilled vodka before each bite. Next we had the Russian Trio - a combination or vereniki (dumplings) in potato, ground meat, or mushroom and sauerkraut, covered in a creamy sauce with chopped fresh dill. These rich savory bites would surely bring me back to Traktir again. The Lula Kebab entree however sadly did not live up to the similar kebab I had in St. P, the spiced ground meat at Traktir was extremely greasy and salty. A few bites in and I felt finished. We did stay for a Turkish coffee following the meal and enjoyed the evening sun filtering through the patio as it set. Yes, it was nice to feel the fleeting comfort of Russia again, but also helped me realize that some things are best kept in their unique place. Next time I want a perfect, true Russian meal, I might just have to spring for another plane ticket.

And thus ends my Russian adventure, friends. I hope you enjoyed these chronicles or found them useful!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Voyager Bien: Drinking.. like a Ruskie


Vodka. Yes, that is the first thing to come to mind generally.
But I quickly learned that beer is actually consumed more in Russia than Smirnoff. And oddly my first proper drink in St. Petersburg was a pint in a basement Irish pub called Mollies, "The most popular Irish pub in town" (Rubinshteina str. #36. M: Vladimirskaya), skimming through guidebooks to the sounds of 80's Guns N Roses hits.. In the morning, no less! But perhaps that's what makes it all the more Russian of me.
You see, one of the first cultural anomalies I didn't expect in St. Petersburg was the 24-7 open container law. Everywhere on the street you see people walking with open beers, from morning deep into the night. Suited businessmen, students on break from class, senior citizens.. Everyone was picking up bottles from the handy kiosks outposted around the city, generally near subway entrances (where a beer costs about a buck or less). Markets have bottle openers out on the counters. The most popular brand is easily St. Petersburg-based Baltika (and second largest brewery in Europe, after Heineken). Being a foreigner, I could immediately appreciate Baltika for it's calssification system - Each bottle is named simply with a number 0 through 10; 0 being non-alchoholic and 10 a 5.2% alcohol dark beer. Baltika 3 is the "Klassicheskoe" (Classic) pale beer that is about as commercially saturated in Russia as Budweiser here in America. It is a decent refreshing lager, but when I had the choice, I opted for the other common beer on tap, Carlsberg's Tuborg Green.
But nights galavanting along the Venetian-like canals and afternoon strolls with brewskies in the park aside, I too was more interested in the vodka. The options are limitless and available at even the smallest of markets. Design alone made it tough to choose, from gorgeous constructivist labels to fun kitschy bottles (Vodka Matryoshka). Flavored vodkas are not just a stateside bastardization I learned, popular flavors in Russia are cranberry, birch, and honey-pepper. I bought a few bottles to bring home, but was more intrigued by the cultural ritual of vodka-drinking. Vodka is more than a mere beverage option at bar - and it is a ritual, with strict rules and taboos associated with it. It is only taken straight, usually for one of three reasons: To celebrate, relax, or medicate. One book I read suggested that to blend in when dining in St. Petersburg restaurants, buy a bottle of vodka. Yes, an entire bottle. Russians commonly consume large amounts of vodka with meals (actually always with food - lots of it). This is actually to prevent one from becoming wasted at the dinner table (bear in mind also that a Russian meal may often last several hours). The vodka is chilled and often decanted, served with shooting glasses. Russians don't sip vodka, nor do they mix it. The most common accompaniment (or "chaser") are assorted pickled vegetables - What sangrita is to tequila. I can't stress enough how much superior these pickles are though - crisp cucumbers, peppers, cabbage and tomatoes with delicate seasoning, not as sour or vinegary as American pickles. Just perfect! Traditionally in large groups, a drawn-out toast is expected before each shot.. followed by a resounding "Naz dyroovnia", or "Zah vsyo kharohshoyeh" ("May everything be good in your life"). Take a deep breath and shoot the vodka, breathe hard out of your mouth followed by a bite of food. Eat more, enjoy company, and repeat! I have to say, adhering strictly to these rules produced the most enjoyable meal and evening of the trip! Also, never set an empty vodka bottle on the table - It is bad luck! Place your empties on the floor..
Russians often take snacks with their beer as well.. the most common is comprised of rye bread croutes covered in garlic, oil and cheese and baked until warm and tasty!
I only made it out to the weekend bar circuit one night in St. Petersburg's Historic heart, and walking down the crowded street beer-in-hand found our first English-speaking comrades. An Israeli man and son out looking for a good place to drink stopped us on a corner hearing our English banter (and shocked to learn we could drink in public). We were en route to Fidel (9 Dumskaya Ulitsa. M: Nevsky Prospekt), a 'cozy' indie-disco bar launched by Anton Belyankin (the bassist of local ska band Dva Samaliota) which shares a crowded block with Datscha (next door, which Belyankin also once co-ran) and several other rowdy dives. We had trouble even fitting inside the door at Fidel, which was packed so tight, the dancefloor at the far end -barely visible through the cigarette smoke- was moving about as much as the kids trying to make their way up to the bar for a drink. As I wedged my way forward to order a round for us and our Israeli friends, a couple of locals caught ear of my English and turned their glazed sights on me. A friendly tall dude with a moustache, long hair and a leather jacket stumbled through a few lines of English asking where I was from. "USA, LA..." I said realizing I should have said "Vancouver". His (obviously more inebriated) friend then turned and started howling something about "George W" and "Condoleezza Rice" with a firm pat on the shoulder. I rolled my eyes in exaggerated agreement, fending off his political remarks for several minutes before giving a thumbs up and saying "Putin" with a grin, and disappearing back into the crowd with our drinks.
I preferred the quiet watering holes we happened upon, Like Ay-y!, a contempo woodsy lodge serving traditional Russian cuisine and Tuborg Green on tap. Ksenya and I had a lovely happy hour brew and shared a small clay pot of dumplings there one afternoon after antiquing. Looking around the piney room I couldn't help but think of my alma mater Doug Fir in Portland...
Saint Petersburg's metro is the second largest underground railway system in Russia and arguably the cheapest and most effective way to get around the city. The trains are fast and run frequently (during rush hours, intervals go as low as 30 seconds between trains). The metro costs about 70 cents per entry. Everything is in Cyrillic however, so sometimes "counting the stops" to your destination is required. After the last subway run each night at midnight (boo), the 24 hour markets are where the action was. We'd generally grab a couple more beers, a snack, some more cranberry candies, some Дюшес (Dushes - a lemony pear flavored soda), and ogle at the weird products on the shelf like tallboys of Gordon's Gin & Tonic and "Sparkling Strawberry Martinis".
My favorite new discovery is квас (kvass), a mildly alchoholic drink made from fermented rye bread, yeast or berries. Kvass is also a main ingredient in окрощка (Okroshka), a traditional cold cucumber soup. As a beverage, it is generally served room temperature in a mug, and made in-house at many traditional Russian restaurants. The kvass I had at Detinets Restaurant (Kremlin, Pokrovskaya Tower, Novgorod Tel: 816-227-4624) was mildly sweet, earthy and tart.. Like warm ginger beer spiked with malt liquor. Detinets is also known for their Медовуха (Medovukha = mead), a honey alcoholic drink also brewed in the restaurant.
On our last night, we stopped into an English-style pub down the street from Katya's apartment called James Cook (45 Kamenoostrovsky prospect Tel: 812-347-6581 M: Petrogradskaya), and sat in the back room where a handsome jazz band was setting up. We ordered tall pints of amber ale and a bowl of rye beer snacks, and what impressed me most was that our waitress was able to understand my butchered Russian, over the music, and with a smile. By the time we finished our dinner, we realized it was past midnight.. But something gave me the impression the night was not yet over. I wondered if Katya had another bottle of red wine waiting on the table back home, ready for our most common drinking ritual of all.. a few nightly glasses around the table.

Next: Departing... Withdrawl and cultural discovery on home turf.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Voyager Bien: Supping in St. P


"I THINK it's around here..." Ksenya turned down an alley filled with parked cars, past a block-long window photo mural of a model reclining on a beach and down into the wide street, filled with rocks where pavement once sat. When I made it to the street and saw the expanse of stones, silent tractors like sleeping dinosaurs, pedestrians hopping pavement river stones to a Russian McDonalds on the other side, for an instant I felt like I was in post-war Berlin, and expected the buzz of air fleets overhead. But no, this was just part of the rampant revitalization of St. Petersburg's Historic Heart, where I had just arrived from the airport, jetlagged as all hell (I couldn't sleep on the plane - they were showing Sex & the City when I was supposed to be napping!). Ksenya was trying to remember where this Georgian restaurant was, a feat already impressive to me as the Cyrillic street names posted on the corners of buildings and minimal signage left me helpless. "Here it is!" Ksenya stepped down and through an unmarked brown door into Kavkaz (18 Karavannaya ul. Tel: 312-1665 M: Nevsky Prospekt)an empty sub-level tavern with tiled floors and bare wooden tables. I self-conciously murmured my first memorized Russian word "spasiba" (thank you) to the young waitress who motioned for us to seat ourselves. I was fading fast and hoped we would get to our host's home before too long, but was happy to accept the tall pilsner beer set in front of me. "What's good here?" I asked Ksenya, who spent her childhood only blocks from the Hermitage Museum, in this same neighborhood. "I don't know.. I can't really read most of this menu," my fluent Russian friend responded. I realized though I was very lucky exploring Russia with a native (Ksenya and her mother fled St. P for Rome by-way-of Vienna when she was 8 years old), no plan is fool-proof - interpreting every flowery word in a menus' description can be a struggle even for someone who knows the written language fairly well. "OH okay," her finger stopped on a page. "These are soup dumplings of some meaty kind." I gulped my beer. "Sold!"
Dining out in St. Petersburg is without a doubt an adventure. A question of "Do we go to the hunting place for bear steaks or the Dagestani place for.. Dagestani food?" Even fast food (despite the prevalence of some mass burger chains) provided a curious change, the blini being the most ubiquitous and inexpensive. Teremok easily dominates the city, kiosks outposted on every other corner in the city center (interestingly born from the 1998 financial crisis). Prices for most of the blinis range from 30 to 80 rubles ($2-4), depending on the filling. Ksenya and I shared one filled with a warm and gooey walnut/brown sugar concoction. A perfect afternoon blood sugar pick-me-up turned supper spoiler. Another afternoon for an early lunch we hit Bliny Domik (8 Kolokolnaya ul. Tel: 812-327-8979 M: Vladimirskaya), a homey, pocket-sized cafe serving up blinis, soups and Russian salads (generally consisting of creamy julienned veggies and proteins, similar to American slaws or potato salads). Despite a favorable recommendation, we found the blinis (slightly more expensive than the kiosks) underwhelming at best. For such simple fare, stick to the streets.

One chain that really won me over from day one was Stolle (a 'stolle' is a traditional Saxon Christmas cake), a family of "pie cafés" (boy do I love this concept). Popping up in the heart of every prominent neighborhood in the city, including down the block from Katya's apartment, Ksenya and I found ourselves sipping espresso and sampling pie more than a couple of times... Baked in gorgeously ornate large sheet loafs and served warm from the oven, the pirogis (pies) run in several varieties, both sweet and savory, and available by the slice for dine-in, or whole for take-out. On our way to Katya's the first evening, we picked up a large cheese-filled pie (a ricotta-like cheesecake-dense semi-sweet filling) as an offering, which ended up working its way into our breakfast for most of the week. On other occasions we sampled the red whortleberry and apple of the sweet, and a cabbage and rabbit with mushroom from the savory. I can't tell you enough how delightful the rabbit pie was.. Tender and flavorful white meat with plump mushrooms, fresh herbs and a flakey buttery crust. Incredible!
Coffee shops (yes, even sans pie) are very popular in the city, the largest chain Кофе Хауз (literally "Coffee House", translated phonetically) is treading near Starbucks ubiquity.. Yet the espresso wasn't half bad! The most delicious café drinks we had were at an odd little spot called Café Chocolat in the medieval village of Novgorod that we daytripped to. This place was decorated like an ode to silver screen romantic cinema, with sappy framed b/w posters the likes of Audrey Hepburn and the Eiffel Tower over red walls. They actually had an English version of the menu, which was curiously extensive, especially in the realm of specialty coffee drinks and cocktails. I had a rum-spiked twist on a Spanish coffee that was tasty, but it was Ksenya's tar-thick spicy molten chili hot chocolate that blew me away. About half way through she picked up her spoon to finish it. To accompany our "drinks" we ordered the cottage cheese cakes to split (Ksenya's own have always been a favorite of mine). The small cakes were drizzled with evaporated milk, dusted with cinnamon and served with carmelized bananas. Tasty, but Ksenya's still win in my book.

After a full afternoon spent exploring the gorgeous and surreal Kremlin fortress, multiplex of churches, foot bridge and man-made "beach" along the Volga river.. we were famished. We decided to take a chance on the most talked-about restaurant in the area (that we feared would be a tourist trap), actually built INSIDE Pokrovskaya tower (above) of the Kremlin walls and sharing the name Detinets with the fortress (Kremlin, Pokrovskaya Tower, Novgorod Tel: 816-227-4624). To our delight, the interior was incredible on its own (as we were not allowed inside any other part of the Kremlin interior). Worried about making to our bus in time to make it back to St. P, we opted for the downstairs casual café instead of the formal dining room up a massive wood spiral staircase (never did get to peek up there, darn it). We were led down through a brick tunnel which opened up into a dark domed cavern lit by hanging lanterns. There were a couple of alcoves halfway up the wall with single tables nestled into them and small wooden steps leading up. Naturally we asked to sit in one of the cubbies and clambered up excitedly. The menu was traditional Russian and extremely inexpensive. I ordered a large bowl of borscht and a mug of house-made Kvass (fermented mildly alcoholic beverage made from rye bread), Ksenya opted for a pelmeni dumpling soup. The food arrived in clay pots with cumbersome (though adorable) painted wooden spoons and a mountain of sliced rye bread. I have had borscht in the past, but this was the real deal, and an incredibly rich and fresh treat. The beets were earthy(duh), tender yet crisp and complimented the salty pork bits and other vegetables nicely in the yummy broth. Such a simple thing, done right can be remarkably impressive. Ksenya's dumpling soup was equally winning. We were sponging the bowls with the rye bread before I even took a photo for the blog. "Here.. we'll fake it" Ksenya said, arranging the napkins, bowls and spoons to look sumptously consumed. I laughed and snapped a shot, filling our little cave with light for the first time. We hated to leave, but shimmied down and out and across the Kremlin court in the direction of the bus station.

It was a chilly night returning to Petrogradsky disctrict - the neighborhood where we stayed, over the Neva River from the Historic Heart of St. Petersburg. Ksenya was taking me to a Parisian style café she had found with coworkers the week before I arrived. As we walked down the high-end shop lined street, I got a striking sense of familiarity - the comparative tendency that I think allows us all to feel more comfortable in foreign surroundings. "This must be like, the SoHo of St. P..." I said as more designer storefronts appeared on the horizon. Expensively dressed women in tailored jackets and skintight heeled boots stalked up and down the sidewalks. "Or maybe Upper East Side?..." We turned onto a dark side street and approached the red awnings of the French wine bistro, Les Amis De Jean-Jacques (Bolshoy pr 54/2 Tel: 812-232-9981 M: Petrogradskaya). It was cozy and very Parisian inside.. a banquette lined the red walls and small marble tables filled the candle-lit room, all reflected in the chic mirror-tiled ceiling. When I held the menu, I remember feeling a sense of relief when I saw the menu was in French as well as Russian. Imagine the absurdity! (As I don't speak French either.. but am MUCH better at figuring out a menu in it than Cyrillic). The wine list was extensive, and the first I'd seen. I ordered a glass of Bordeaux and French onion soup, followed by a Croque Madame. Everything was delicious and surprisingly authentic.. The soup was chockful with soggy baquette and covered in massive amounts of melted swiss. The croque wore a perfect poached egg and a sprinkling of chopped dill. I could have sat here all night, fighting my cold with wine and inhaling second-hand smoke while doodling with crayons on the butcherwrap covering the tables. But alas our jetlag begged for bed, and so we walked back along the dark store windows, half expecting to see a yellow cab cruise past.

After Georgian, the Caucasian cuisine that seemed the most available (and recommended) in St. Petersburg was Dagestani... A cuisine I admit had never even crossed my mind. Therefore, having no idea what to expect, one evening Ksenya and I searched out Sumeta (ul Yefimova 5, Sennaya; Tel:812-310-2411 M: Sadovaya). A neon gateway greeted us as we stepped down a stone brick stairway into a dim, loud dining room with a roaring fireplace and a giant lit-up fountain covering one wall. Every table appeared full, and the host let us know it would be a wait.. Unless, of course, we wouldn't mind the non-smoking room in the back... Laughing, we accepted - to the host's utter surprise. She led us through a rocky crag in the wall and we were sat in a cozy cave alongside a large loud group drunkenly celebrating. Ksenya and I smiled, feeling like THIS was how our Dagestani dining experience should probably play out. Everything on the menu sounded delicious and we were famished, so decided to make this our "big" night to course, and really do it right. We ordered a bottle of Putinka vodka and соления дагестанские (Dagestan pickles) to start, properly. After some toasts alonside our rowdy neighbors and savoring the perfectly pickled cucumbers, spicy peppers and shoots of some kind (reminded me of carnation stems - but delicious!), we ordered чудустыквой (Chudu with pumpkin). Chudu is like a large crispy "pancake" (somewhere between a pastry quesadilla and cheese naan). It is greasy and rich, filled with a savory spiced pumpkin puree and served warm, cut into pieces. Sounds simple, but Ksenya and I were both impressed with how tasty and complex the flavors actually were (and is one of the main dishes now that I can't stop thinking about and craving!) After more vodka we ordered some курзе (Kurze- Dagestan pelmenis), which were delicious pierogi-like meat dumplings in a light garlic sauce. Then we were ready for the люля (Lulya Kebab), which is basically my new favorite thing ever. Imagine coarsely ground beef and lamb spiced and mixed with fresh herbs, formed around a kebab and grilled over flame to perfection, served with crispy fried potatoes and fresh vegetables, all covered with chopped herbs and onions, with a spicy ketchup-like tomato sauce on the side. In summary: A super moist perfect burger on a stick with crispy fries! After stuffing ourselves and finishing the last of the vodka, Ksenya and I ordered espresso and the traditional dessert, which was sadly just a few scoops of ice cream with chopped candied fruit bits and a cherry. In all honesty, I didn't need it though. Our neighbors were up and dancing at this point, and we were pleasantly pickled ourselves. The meal had already lasted almost two hours and we were not feeling rushed in the least. We wondered if the more popular smoking room up front was having as much fun, but certain they weren't.

Next: We take to the streets and get our drink on, the Russian way!

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Voyager Bien: The Russian Way


Before landing in St. Petersburg, Russia, I really only had two main culinary expectations: Borscht and Blinis. In fact, Russian cuisine is so misunderstood in America that I hardly anticipated the most important part of my travels - EATING.
Luckily Mother Russia proved me quite inept. Weeks after my return, and I still craved the meals I ate there, desperately trying to recreate even the simplest recipes my host had made. The main difference I noticed right away is ingredients. They didn't need to boast Organic, free-range, hormone-free or grass-fed -- This food was straight from the source. Fresh handpicked forest mushrooms, plump farm chicken, savory garden dill, sweet watermelon.. Rudimentary flavors punched by their authenticity. "It doesn't taste like this at home.." I found myself murmuring throughout various meals in Russia. Even their version of cottage cheese, the creamy large curds packed with a side of fruit compote kept me poking in the fridge each morning for more.
What I am most grateful for though is the opportunity to stay in a Russian home versus a tourist hotel. From the moment I stepped inside the long, narrow, 12 ft tall checkered hallway of our host's somewhat decrepit pre-WWI greystone apartment I felt like "OK.. now THIS is real Russia."
Cloudy glass-paned french doors lining the North side of the hall led to various rooms and hidden spaces, from around the crook at the end of the dark hall came the aroma of cooking food. Ksenya and I obediently slipped off our shoes at the entryway and tiptoed with our luggage down the icy hall, our host gliding ahead of us in her robe begging pardon for appearances. Our room had an enormously high moulded ceiling and broad double-paned oriel windows, baroque china cabinets and dark wardrobes filling most of the space. As soon as we'd set our things down, we were lead through an unseen doorway to a large room that served as office, dining room, (and as we later deduced) bedroom to our host. We were sat at the table and immediately served wine in antique crystal goblets. Though we had feasted on Georgian food a mere hour or so before, Katya was just finishing preparing dinner, which I immediately understood was not optional. Katya's son and daughter-in-law appeared then, from another door somewhere in the hall and joined us around a pedestal bowl of golden pears and red grapes on the octagonal wooden table. All three of them knew bits of english, but conversation tended to carry out in Russian, which added to the otherness of my delerium. A hefty chicken breast was placed on my plate, followed by a heaping spoonful of the largest-grain rice I've ever seen. Battered and fried green squash appeared next and more wine filled my glass. I gave in and unfolded my napkin. It was the most tender, moist and flavorful chicken I've had in years, and merely panfried along with the rice according to Katya. My stomach hardly minded it was already full. I was going to be okay with 'the Russian way' I realized, and let my mind slip away, focusing instead on my comforted tastebuds.
Mornings were met casually around the table, Katya emptying the cupboard and fridge in a continental breakfast style.. Loose black tea was first served in brittle china teacups, followed by an array of items: rye toast with herbed cream spreads, salami and sliced gouda, the aforementioned cottage cheese and preserves, Stolle cheese pie, морст (a cloudy red fruit juice in lingonberry, cranberry or cherry), and of course fresh oranges, yellow pears and grapes. We learned quickly that even though this seemed like on-the-go morning fare, it was rarely treated as such. One morning in our coats ready to attack a full day (and even after professing our rush), we clocked our quick little breakfast in at 2 hours. Conversation, guide books, family photos, online searches.. Katya loved the company. What could we do? Drink more tea and eat more food!
After -or in addition to- most meals at Katya's, boxes of sweets were brought out, even with breakfast. Chocolate covered wafers, truffles, and wrapped candies.. My favorite of these (a TOTAL "Super Bon!" item) came in a modest small square box under folds of thin waxed paper. Called клюква в сахарной пудре, they are simply fresh cranberries coated with powdered sugar. The tart blast of the cranberry juice upon biting through the sweet shell is shocking and incredible - and addictive.
One chilly evening Ksenya and I returned to the apartment and stepped out of our boots, immediately to be motioned by Katya to the table. She served us a home made Forest mushroom soup topped with chopped fresh dill and sour cream, piles of sliced rye bread and of course wine. It was honestly the best soup I have tasted in ages. The mushrooms were massive and meaty, and elegantly flavored unlike any I've had. Somewhere between a chantrelle, a porcini and a shitake. I asked Katya what kind of mushroom and her response was that she picked them in the forest herself but days before our arrival. Ksenya tried to ask their type in Russian, but Katya just shook her head. "You don't have mushrooms like this in America, so it does not matter."
On our last day, we took a drive into the countryside with Katya and her friend. We were on our way to Vyborg, a little medeival town on the border of Finland, by way of Katya's summer home near the Nevskaya Guba Bay. Every several miles along the highway's shoulder an old woman was sitting in a folding chair, a stack of jars containing pickled vegetables or bunches of hanging dried herbs by her side. There also sat scattered tribes of parked empty cars, an occasional person stepping into the thick woods, gathering basket in hand. This reminded me, I had been wanting to talk to Katya about getting her mushroom soup recipe to post on my blog. I asked her if that was something she would be interested in, and was met with a reaction of befuddlement. "It's not the RECIPE.. It.. just won't taste the same," she said, swishing her hand in dismissal.
I smiled stiffly in defeat and turned back toward the passing woods outside, watching a couple of gatherers returning from the forest depths with heaping baskets, knowing she was right.

Next up: Dining out in the city!

Vintage images from from a Soviet cookbook printed in the USSR, 1952. Title loosely translated is ‘Book Of Tasty And Healthy Food’.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Voyager Bien: When In Leningrad


"You have to come to St. Petersburg with me," Ksenya said sensing my dubious demeanor, then with a tone of assurance, "It will be life-changing."
I had known about her trip for less than a week. It was hardly the sort of thing I agreed to on random Tuesday evenings. But somewhere in that moment, the conservative in me set down the paring knife I was rinsing in the sink and shifted my phone to the other ear.
"OK." I felt my cheeks burn a bit as I said it. "I'll look into flights and renewing my passport tomorrow."
I am constantly trying to figure out why as a student and young adult I never took advantage of the welcoming world outside of the states' lines. For some reason I've always convinced myself that I have too much going on at home, too many responsibilties, or that it cost too much. I had been abroad exactly once, in 1996 on a school orchestra trip to the Austrian Alps. Never since. After tea with a few people considering my Russian whim, I realized that this was conservatism I was actively putting upon myself. I saw the rare opportunity to travel somewhere like Russia with a native and see the culture from the inside.. and thus gave the bird to my sparkling credit and opened a new card to slap the airfare onto.
Less than a month later, I was landing at the St. Petersburg Airport (thankful a coworker had warned me of the bleak communist architecture of the uninviting fortress). Worth noting that Finnair was an incredibly affordable flight from New York by way of Helsinki, I would fly them again (very important note: complimentary bottomless Finnish beer, wine and sparkling wine throughout entire flight). My friend Ksenya, also to be my communication backbone while in Russia, was in the city finishing up a typeface conference, so getting through immigration and finding a cab to her hotel was my first challenge. Sounds easy enough? I learned quickly that hardly a word of English was spoken in or around the airport. The taxi numbers I called, even after butchering a few Russian phrases, responded only with further questions I couldn't understand or "Nyet". The sharks outside (half with taxis, half with their own cars) spoke a word or two, but only enough to let you know they'd take you to the city for 5 times what I was told it should cost. I knew I had to drop the vulnerable tourist countenance quick. I went back inside the airport, bundled up in my coat, scarf and tweed cap, reviewed a few key lines to negotiate the taxi and went back out, eventually convincing a more compliant dude to take my price and drive me into the city. As he weaved around cars in single lanes at lightning speeds past the lúkovichnaya glava (onion dome) church and super-store dotted countryside, I counted my blessings and knew already that Ksenya had been right. As the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood appeared casually between the set-like building facades of Nevskiy Prospekt it was cemented. This was the beginning of an adventure I wouldn't soon forget.

Stay tuned as the Chocolate of Meats delves into the rich belly of St. Petersburg's ethnic Caucasian restaurants, flea markets, family suppers, street blinis, vodka rituals, pie cafés and beer kiosks. Na Zdorovye!

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

En Vitesse: Quick Bites


To quell some of my writer's anxiety over larger blogpost projects/series (ah hem, Russia) I decided to blast out my IT list for the week.. An amuse-bouche for us bon vivants.

After a few weeks tightly nested in my apartment due to flu and post-holiday debt, I returned to the nightlife this past week with relieving success. One of my first stops was a civilized cocktail at one of downtown LA's newest hidden treasures, the Association (110 e 6th st). Hoping to cater to locals as a "neighborhood pub", this English-style boozer's modest elegance will surely draw the savvy set, with incredibly fresh cocktail ingredients, a killer whiskey/Scotch collection and a buffet of boutique bitters topping the bar. An LA-original, the Brown Derby cocktail (bourbon, benedictine, bitters and flamed orange peel) topped the classics list, while an off-the-menu Elderflower Gimlet refreshed the palate. You won't spot this dwelling passing by though, as there is no signage - Under the neon glow of the newly reopened Cole's marquee keep watch for a stag doorman in front of a heavy black door (an exact replica the 10 Downing Street door - the official residence of the British prime minister in London).

On the topic of drink... A new mixology trend seeping down the West coast (and about time) is the effervescent BEER COCKTAIL. Known previously to me only by my summer favorite the Trailer Trash Margarita, hangover-cure-all the Bloody Beer, and of course Irish Car Bombs.. This movement (examples pair hefeweizen with gin, lime and elderflower; Sapporo with blackberries, vodka and chambord) is taking my guilty pleasure for ale-mixing to a whole new level...


Dinner parties need to come back in a huge way this Spring, OK? This past weekend, my friend and hostess-with-the-mostest Nicolette casually last-minute invited a group over for enchiladas on her patio.. I wasn't expecting the several trays of hand-rolled enchiladas, Spanish rice, handmade tortilla chips and enough delicious fresh salsa to feed a firehouse. As always, she spared no expense to regale a perfect experience (all the way through espresso service). It was the most delightful surprise meal I have had in weeks.


On the town, I once again thoroughly enjoyed my tacos (chicken mole, spicy carnita and carne deshebrada) last night at Loteria Grill's Hollywood Blvd outpost (just go already) and recent brunches at Silverlake favorite Malo (I could drink spicy cucumber "brunch" margaritas with breakfast everyday...) and a fluffy crabcake benedict and mimosa at laid-back posh spot Taste on Melrose. Yes, it tastes good to be back, LA...

Speaking of tasting, Catherine made my mouth water today with this recipe for HOMEMADE OREOS... Enough said.

And finally.. How can I thank Paul enough for passing along this NYTimes article and gut-busting recipe involving, drumroll please.. Woven bacon. I give you, the Internet-famous BBQ'd-pig-overload, the BACON EXPLOSION.photos via LATimes and my crappy cellphone