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 Masha and the Bear, Russian food has come to (East) Williamsburg. Opened in early 2015, the restaurant is named after a folk tale, wherein a girl (Macha) gets lost in the forest, then captured by a bear who forces her to do domestic chores until she eventually manages to trick the bear and escape. The story was recently turned into an animated series that won international acclaim. Judging by the paintings on the restaurant’s front windows, owner Vitaly Sherman and his wife Masha have come up with a more grown-up interpretation for New Yorkers: The Bear, a bald, wife-beater-clad man of limited charm, attempts to seduce buxom Masha by getting her drunk on flavored vodka. “Fat or skinny, short or tall, alcohol will fix it all. If being ugly is your fate, buy some vodka for your date”. The ending of the story is left out…
While we don’t know what the bear’s hut would look like in the folk tale, the decor at M&B makes for a plausible reconstitution (if bears really lived in huts, that is). The cozy interior is entirely outfitted with wooden furniture, and cheesy forest landscapes hang on the wood-paneled walls, along with an unlikely painting of Saint-George and the Dragon. As one would expect in this part of town, the restaurant attracts more than just Russian patrons. Some of the waiters don’t seem to speak Russian, though some do, and I heard Russian being spoken in the kitchen. Let’s also not forget that the bear population is more than ten times larger in North America than in the former Soviet Union. (I mean the Ursidae variety; I’m not well-informed on the gay man variety.)
The menu isn’t ridiculously long like at certain other restaurants, but with 10 appetizers, 5 salads, 4 soups, and 7 entrées, chances are it does cover all of the Russian dishes that you know. There’s even a few more unusual dishes, like the fried watermelon or the rabbit. Brunch is served on weekends: think pelmeni with eggs, fried potatoes with eggs, potato pancakes with eggs, zucchini pancakes with eggs, blini with eggs. Brunch is always so creative… Luckily this brunch doesn’t mean you have to wait for hours to get a table and eat an overpriced poached egg. Firstly, Masha and the Bear isn’t that popular. Secondly, the brunch menu is served in addition to the regular menu, not in lieu of it. The other positive feature of brunch is the bottomless “Dirty Borscht” or Soviet mimosa, for only slightly more than the price of a single glass.
Still, before cheering, be informed that the cocktails aren’t always great. I haven’t tried the vile-sounding Dirty Borscht, but I’ve tasted a few others. The Defect is “a sweet and tangy light rum juice cocktail” and is nondescript enough that I’m not even sure what the juice is. Cranberry, maybe? The Anastasia is a kind of Old Fashioned, made with bourbon infused with orange and nutmeg, and Tahitian vanilla syrup. It arrives with a ton of ice that makes the drink too diluted, and the bourbon isn’t nearly as good as it sounds. If you insist on having a sense of place in your beverages, try The Masha (a sort of Cosmo) or The Bear (a “delicious experimental beer cocktail” without beer).
The flavored vodkas seem to fare better — not that I’ve tried them all. Far from it! At M&B they’re called “vodkas on tap”, and this isn’t just a Williamsburg gimmick: apparently, the owner insists that exposing vodka to air compromises the flavor, so he keeps it in beer kegs where it’s pressurized for consistency. The hops & honey vodka is pretty interesting: it’s a vodka that tastes like beer, bitter and only faintly sweet, so definitely more hops than honey, yellow in color, smells like beer. Maybe I would like more honey since I don’t tend to like beer but I actually like this vodka.
The cheese pirozhok looks a bit like a penovani khachapuri to me. It’s quite large, made of puff pastry with a thin layer of cheese in the middle (most likely American mozzarella), and judging by the color, an attempt has been made to brush it with egg yolk. Depending on the day of your visit, it might be closed and round, or open-faced and rectangular, or maybe some other shape I have yet to discover. Puff pastry isn’t the kind of dough one expects in a pirozhok, a large round shape isn’t anything I’ve encountered in a pirozhok before, and American mozzarella (or any Russian equivalent) isn’t the most frequent filling either. But M&B can explain: this is their “much lighter take on the ubiquitous hand-held doughy vessel that can and has been filled with just about anything.” Just don’t ask me how making it larger and using a dough laminated with butter produces a “much lighter” result! Leaving aside the discussion about what makes a pirozhok a pirozhok, it tastes quite good. Then again, it’s difficult to go wrong with ingredients like this — even my picky 6-year old daughter couldn’t come up with a reason not to eat it.
The menu actually mentions a “pirozhok of the week”. Yet the cook, caught up in the passionate torments of creation, seems to be offering at least two different kinds per week, although they seem to be the same every week: cheese and salmon. The salmon pirozhok is rectangular and open-faced (or so it is on the days when the cheese one is round). The puff pastry is slightly thicker and puffier than in the cheese version, but the pirozhok is still large and the filling is equally simple: just salmon and dill, I would say.
But wait, there’s a third pirozhok! It comes as a surprise bonus with the Tsar’s ukha. This pirozhok is salmon and bass, or salmon and flounder, depending whether you trust the web menu or the waitstaff (the print menu solves the problem by not mentioning it at all). The ukha itself is a simple fish broth with small chunks of salmon, lemon, celery, carrot, and some other vegetables (potatoes?), plus some dill and bay leaf. It’s pretty good, with the right hint of acidity. There’s not too much dill (something I often complain about in Russian food) but there is arguably too much bay leaf, as the taste is marked. Overall, a nice ukha.
The cheese varenyky are filled with tvorog mixed with a bit of sugar. Aha, not quite what you’d expect for an appetizer! Especially when the menu just says “cheese” and lists them next to cabbage and potato dumplings. So, yes, they’re sweet. Should you decide to reserve them for dessert (and not mind eating them cold), they taste alright.
The deep-fried watermelon is something I’m trying for the first time. It consists of cubes of watermelon coated with pretty coarse breadcrumbs. The watermelon is rather bland (because it’s totally out of season in the middle of winter), and most importantly there’s no salt at all. So I’d classify this is an interesting idea that needs more work. It’s served with a kind of Chicken McNuggets dipping sauce that’s more successful. Just like the Golden Arches’ real McCoy (heh), the sauce is vinegary, sweet, slightly spicy. I’d guess that it contains mustard, paprika, and apple juice.
No Russian restaurant review meal is complete without pelmeni. The meat dumplings are either chicken or Siberian, and can be boiled or fried. The fried [Siberian] pelmeni aren’t simply pan-fried in the way you’d picture a plateful of fried pierogies, they’re deep-fried. Unfortunately, pelmeni dough doesn’t really work for deep-frying. This makes the outside incredibly dry, like a hard shell, and then they’re not very juicy inside. Too bad, because the meat filling (beef and pork?) would otherwise be alright. The little cups of sour cream (two of them, so you don’t run out) and strong mustard offer little help. Disappointing.
The boiled [chicken] pelmeni are far better. They’re not super juicy, but the meat filling is tasty, well-seasoned, and not too compact. The dough is a tiny bit thick but doesn’t bother me. The dumplings are topped with scallions and served with sour cream on the side, no mustard this time. I just wish there was a dash of bouillon or butter in the bowl.
The shashlychnaya kolbasa is described as a “traditional cold-smoked ‘Hunters’ sausage flash baked on cast iron skillets and served with our Sweet and Tangy Cabbage a la russe and hand cut garlic / dill fries”. The sausage looks and tastes like a Polish kielbasa to me, smoky, salty, and juicy just as it should be. It comes with a pretty good shashlyk sauce (hence the name of the dish, I presume), which is a kind of homemade spicy tomato ketchup with herbs. The sautéed cabbage, cooked in a tomato sauce, is just okay, and the fries are slightly soggy but otherwise good.
The chicken goulash is quite a departure from Hungary’s national dish. First it’s cooked in a clay pot, Russian style. Then it’s topped with puff pastry, because M&B loves puff pastry (it can be bought in, it’s French, and no other ingredient manages to contain as much butter and still be called airy). Finally, far from being a soup, this goulash is mostly meat. Chunks of tender chicken are baked with carrots in a thin sauce that’s almost indistinguishable from the meat. The sauce isn’t very spicy and I don’t taste a lot of paprika. In fact, there’s something funny about the seasoning. It tastes almost as if it comes from a packet, like taco seasoning for goulash. Is it salt, MSG, onion powder? I’m not sure… Otherwise, I like it.
The Bugs Bunny in Moscow is “American r-r-rabbit braised Russian village style in a white sauce with traditional buckwheat kasha”. It’s considerably larger than the goulash; I think there’s half a rabbit on the plate. The meat lacks salt, but it’s tender enough and it tastes good. It’s topped with a baroque assortment of vegetables: peas, diced gherkins, and more. I wish there was more sauce, and I would have put some mustard in that sauce. As for the sides? Bad news, comrades: today there’s a shortage of buckwheat, so we’ll have barley instead. Oh, and it won’t be a very traditional kasha either, the replacement barley is made with green peas, red peppers, and some kind of sauce that tastes like red peppers too. Not what I expected, but still good, assuming one likes red peppers. This ended up taking a big turn from the menu’s description, probably for the better. Finally, there’s a pile of coleslaw without dressing, made solely of shredded raw cabbage and carrots — meh.
To finish the meal, there are three very Russian desserts to choose from. The Napoleon has always been a strange beast to me. In other countries where this mille-feuille is popular, such as France or Italy, pastry cooks generally try to add some excitement to the simple layers of puff pastry and pastry cream by flavoring the cream or garnishing the dessert with fruits. Russians, nyet. I don’t even taste vanilla in the pastry cream. But my biggest problem here is that the puff pastry is very soggy and not crispy at all. I guess the cake must have been made a while ago. There’s a lot of layering, so it might have been nice when it was freshly made. Right now it’s heavy and disappointing.
The blini are garnished with apple, chocolate, and / or sour cherries. As far as the plain blini go, I’ve never had a bad one, and M&B offers no exception. Chocolate sauces are often more problematic. Note to restaurants: you don’t buy chocolate sauce in a plastic jug, you make it; you don’t make good chocolate sauce with bad chocolate; and the main ingredient and taste in a chocolate sauce should be chocolate. I sounds so simple, and yet… I don’t know for sure which one of these recommendations M&B doesn’t follow, but I do know that I don’t like the sauce that comes on the blini. And does it contain cinnamon?!
If vodka and cocktails aren’t your thing, there’s a good selection of beers on tap, which comes as no surprise considering that the owner also runs the Beer Boutique a few blocks away. I don’t remember seeing any wine but I could be mistaken. Service is fairly efficient, and the prices are reasonable (count about $40 per person without drinks).
Looking back at the dishes I’ve tried, I’d group them into several categories. First there are the very simple dishes that taste good but don’t exactly require a Culinary Arts degree, assembled with three or four ingredients (e.g., the cheese pirozhok: puff pastry, mozzarella, egg yolk). Next there are classic dishes — only slightly more complex — that are pretty well executed, like the Tsar’s ukha, the kolbasa, or the boiled pelmeni. But beware of those that suffer from improper descriptions on the menu (such as the cheese varenyky or the fried pelmeni), which rarely result in happy customers. Then you’ve got the more creative dishes (the rabbit, the goulash), which need some tuning but can be worth it regardless. Despite all this, if the recipes are never the same twice, who knows if you’ll come back and still like the dishes you had last time? Finally, there are the desserts, which you’d be well advised to skip. Overall, the food at Masha and the Bear isn’t bad, but I wish that the owner was as principled with the quality and consistency of the dishes as he is with the flavor of his vodkas.
Picks: Tsar’s ukha, Bugs Bunny in Moscow, flavored vodkas
Avoid: deep-fried pelmeni, desserts