A YEAR AGO, if you had said the words "Russian food" to me, I'd have likely imagined (unfairly) steaming bland borscht and a sad cabbage accompaniment—certainly nothing I'd shell out for, and nothing I would crave in the summer.
But a trio of new ventures—DaNet, a pop-up from legendary chef Vitaly Paley; Kachka, already a classic on SE Grand; and Russian Horse, a Sellwood food cart—are bringing the true spirit of Mother Russia in all of her salty, pickled, fishy, dumpling-y glory. It's about time: Russians make up one of Portland's largest immigrant groups, but until just months ago, a few select spots on the city's outer edges were the only places to score this cuisine.
To be sure, there's still borscht—delightful in beety hues of red and orange. More tantalizing are elevated classics like beef stroganoff made with tongue at Kachka, or intricately spiced saffron rice plov at DaNet. The most wonderful of all is zakuski—Russia's answer to izakaya or tapas—drinking food best paired with crisp cold shots of (what else?) vodka. Here's a look at each, with an eye for socioeconomic status:
Chef Vitaly Paley based his seminal Portland restaurant, Paley's Place, on seasonal, refined American fare, with hardly a nod to his youth in the Soviet Union. Finally, decades into his professional career, Paley is embracing his roots with a $65 five-course, limited-run pop-up called DaNet.
"It's very personal to me," Paley said before the July version of DaNet (meaning "yes" and "no" together in Russian). "Russian food is difficult to bring into a restaurant setting."
The recipes he's kept tucked away for all these years translate well, nonetheless. Paley, after a toast in which he quoted Chekhov (I believe this is required of all Russians when toasting), unleashed five courses served family-style to the roughly three dozen people packed shoulder-to-shoulder in the Portland Penny Diner, converted for the evening to a folksy environment courtesy of decorations flown in from Paley's mother.
The meal is accompanied by $15 vodka flights (worth it!) and strange cocktails like a tweaked gin martini topped with olive oil, pickled peppers, and a spritz of house botanical perfume ($9). Up first are the zakuski, those Russian small-plate appetizers foreign to me until a few months ago. (Now? I don't know how I lived without them.) Steelhead salmon caviar with cured salmon; house-made pickles; cured mortadella-stuffed pork belly; smoked trout salad; endless blini pancakes with jam, butter, and sour cream. It begs for more vodka.
Then, khinkali—a spiced beef and pork dumpling similar to xiao long bao, or soup dumpling, that you can find at well-run dim sum joints in town. Bite into the dumpling, suck out the savory broth within, and then dip the little bundle into an herbed yogurt dipping sauce. Succeeding courses flew out in a vodka-fuzzed parade: Ukrainian-style borscht with black rye bread; a grilled lamb skewer with the most gorgeously spiced plov (AKA pilaf) I've ever had; and finished with a cheese and walnut strudel with sour cherry compote.
Paley toasted his guests and explained that his time in the Soviet Union represented such painful memories that it was difficult for him to broach the cuisine. Yet like any great Russian, he's managed to make art out of tragedy. If you've got the means, get there before he discontinues DaNet.
Kulak (Wealthy Peasant): Kachka
For the best times, round up three or four friends who won't turn up their noses at oily cured fishes, mayonnaise-based sauces, and even straight up fatback. Preferably, they can down at least four shots of vodka in a sitting.
The $25-per-person "zakuski experience" is the kind of meal that I'm most likely to get emotional about. Be prepared to wait a bit for your tour of the Federation; Kachka is already drawing crowds, and for good reason. You're encouraged to drink copious amounts of vodka by servers who genuinely seem to want you to have a jolly feast while you're there. With tunes that sound like the USSR's version of Tom Waits bumping in the background, you surrender control of your menu choices to first-generation Russian chef Bonnie Morales and her husband, Israel, who send out plate after plate of pickles, charcuterie, cheese, and fish.
Request "Herring Under a Fur Coat" or order it solo ($8): a gorgeous seven-layer salad of herring, potatoes, onions, carrots, beets, mayo, and eggs. My humble Merc budget didn't make room for a taste of the fancy caviars ($55 and up), but the goad pearl trout roe ($19), applied to yeasted blini with butter and chive burst in my mouth like little salty firecrackers. Wash it all down with vodka infusions as you go. Each infusion was great, but the horseradish, Earl Grey, and zubrovka vodka (an astringent but refreshing blend of bison grass and other herbs) are a must.
After zakuski, whether you still have space left in your belly or not, stuff in an order of pelmeni and an entrée. The scallion and farmer's cheese in fancy broth ($13)—it's fancy 'cause it's made with head cheese!—were the best of a trio that also involves a beef, pork, veal, and onion pelmeni and an Oregon sour cherry dumpling that was best saved for dessert, served fried. A chicken Kiev ($18) let out a little burst of butter when we cut into it, but still lacked flavor, and was served on an uninspiring grain blend. Far better were the overstuffed golubtsi ($17), sweet and sour cabbage rolls with pork that went down faster than a shot of Hammer & Sickle.
More than halfway through the year, I can say with confidence that Kachka will certainly be making my top 10 list of 2014 openings. If your palate delights at fermented, cured, and strong flavors, get there. Just save me a seat.
Proletariat: Russian Horse
Now open in its Sellwood pod for three months, Russian Horse is churning out pierogi, kielbasa, and other standards with sincerity.
A radish and cucumber salad in a spring onion and sour cream dressing is a steal at $2.50 and makes you feel better about stuffing your face with the kielbasa pierogi, mashed potatoes, and diced meat (three big dumplings for $6) tucked into a toothsome dough, topped with sour cream and a side of Siberian pickles or an effervescent house-made sauerkraut. Skip the carbtastic tater tot pierogi in favor of the three chicken and mushroom kotleti sliders, a moist patty on fluffy potato rolls and topped with pickles ($7.50). Don't miss the syrniki, three small dessert blini with farmer cheese inside, topped with powdered sugar and lemon zest for just $1.
Run by a married couple who boast Ukrainian blood on one side of the union, the cart blends Russian, Ukrainian, and Polish influences, so purists may not be entirely satisfied. But for those seeking good Baltic flavors, they're eminently accessible and affordable rations.
DaNet: next pop-up is Aug 14 at 6:30 pm; reservations required. Kachka: daily 4 pm-midnight. Russian Horse: Wed-Sat noon-8 pm, Tues and Sun noon-3 pm.