Restaurant Review: Ariana

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!

Ariana, in Greenwich Village, is the brain child of Russian singer Ariana Grinblat. According to the web site, Ariana “has decided it’s time to update Russian cuisine in America”, and we at Food Perestroika couldn’t agree more. With the help of Mari Vanna alum Vitaliy Kovalev “from St. Petersburg” (presumably Russia, not Florida), she’s “looking to shock your senses, and redefine what you thought you knew about Russian food”. Of course we’ve heard that song before, everywhere from nearby Groupon-magnet Onegin claiming to serve “Russian fusion” to the short-lived midtown Brasserie Pushkin with its world champion chef and pricey menu. Will our senses be shocked in a good way this time around, or will we end up eating the same old shoe-sole Stroganoff and overcooked cabbage rolls? Read on to find out!

Russian Cuisine - Ariana

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Red Alert: Petrossian

Red Alert! Random Eastern European dishes are invading our streets and restaurants! Should you duck and cover, or welcome the enemy?

PetrossianPetrossian, just a block south of Central Park in Midtown, is a strange beast. Contrary to what many people might think, it’s really not a Russian restaurant. It’s an “expensive ingredient” restaurant. And yet there’s a Russian connection. Kind of. Armenian, rather. Sort of.

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Restaurant Review: Nasha Rasha

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!

In (or very near) the Flatiron District, Nasha Rasha took over the spot of former Bazar Mediterranean Bistro, right next to another Eastern European restaurant, Café Prague. The name translates as “Our Russia”, although you’ll quickly find that Their Russia looks a lot like a parody of the USSR.

Russian Food - Nasha Rasha

Indeed, the walls are painted red and covered with Soviet flags and communism-inspired images, with neon stars and a prominent hammer and sickle. Waitresses wear Young Pioneer scarves and T-shirts with the famous не болтай propaganda image. Nasha Rasha even went a step further, and raided eBay’s military memorabilia section, so that patrons can share highly original pictures of themselves wearing Soviet hats on Instagram. To complete the decor, shelves upon shelves of brightly lit vodka bottles are mounted around the room. Hammer and sickle paradise, vodka heaven — what’s not to love? (Spoiler: everything else. The food, the service, the prices.)

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Restaurant Review: Pravda

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!

Russian Cuisine - Pravda

Opened in 1996, Pravda, in Nolita, is a creation of restaurateur Keith McNally, the man behind hits like Balthazar, Pastis, Schiller’s, and Minetta Tavern. As such, half of New York has probably had drinks there at one time or another. What many may not know, however, especially if they’ve been indulging themselves with too many martinis, is that the place is also a restaurant. With the bar’s hype long gone and the once iconic concept of mirror-and-lights bar shelves repeated ad infinitum throughout the city, it’s long since been time to check out what the food’s worth.

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Restaurant Review: Mari Vanna

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!

Mari Vanna - Russian Cuisine

Mari Vanna, open since 2009 in the Flatiron district, is the New York outpost of a small Russian chain that wants to be just like home (po-domashnemu in Russian). Look for other branches in Saint-Petersburg, Moscow, London, Washington D.C., and Los Angeles.

The interior supposedly represents “an archetypal Russian home”, “reminiscent of pre- and post- Soviet Union Russia”, and “the wallpaper peels back to show the generations that have passed”. In my own words, I would say the decor is a kitsch but cute reconstitution of a home of the pre-revolution Russian bourgeoisie. In other words, Burnt by the Sun meets AvroKo.

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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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Red Alert: Alternative Schnitzels

Red Alert! Random Eastern European dishes are invading our streets and restaurants! Should you duck and cover, or welcome the enemy?

Red Alert - Alternative Schnitzels

Zagat says alternative schnitzels are trendy in NYC. For proof, the duck schnitzel at The Marrow:

When Harold Dieterle reached for his mallet at newly opened West Village joint The Marrow, he didn’t start hammering veal or pork into a thin patty. Instead he reached for some duck, taking a dish that doesn’t vary much from restaurant to restaurant and making it into something exciting again. His version of this Austrian comfort food is served with quark spaetzle, hazlenuts, cucumber-potato salad and stewed wolfberries. The dish is at once different and familiar, providing a fresh take on a plate that can easily feel tired.

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Berlin Restaurant Report: Pasternak

In addition to my New York restaurant reviews, I’d like to share with you my thoughts on random Eastern European restaurants I visit during my various trips. These posts may not always have the depth of my traditional reviews, so I won’t provide any ratings. I’m also unlikely to write about a place if it’s not noteworthy in some capacity.

Named after famous Russian writer Boris Pasternak, Restaurant Pasternak is located in the Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood of Berlin. From my limited understanding of the city’s geography, this area of former-East Berlin is now famous for its designer stores, restaurants, cafés, and bars, and has become popular among American expats and European immigrants.

Berlin - Restaurant Pasternak

As if the name wasn’t enough (the Russian author wrote Doctor Zhivago and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, for Stalin’s sake!), the menu makes it clear that Restaurant Pasternak is trying to seduce a western crowd. Dishes are named after intelligentsia, proletariat, former Soviet cities, regions, or republics, and of course, the good Doctor himself. The only thing missing is a picture of Omar Sharif on the wall. What you get instead is a collection of Soviet-inspired postcards like the one below. All in all, the selection is (luckily) much shorter than Pasternak’s novel, with a number of Russian classics delivered in multiple versions, plus a small selection of Jewish specialties such as latkes and kreplach.

Berlin - Restaurant Pasternak

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Red Alert: Moscow 57 Under The Tracks

Red Alert! Random Eastern European dishes are invading our streets and restaurants! Should you duck and cover, or welcome the enemy?

Russian Cuisine - Moscow 57 Under The Tracks

Not unlike Iron Curtain, Moscow 57 is a restaurant-to-be that plans to serve pan-Soviet cuisine and offers previews before opening. They also operate as a catering business. With their Moscow 57 Under The Tracks summer events, they’ve found an unexpected home inside the Urban Garden Center in East Harlem. Not only have they created a kind of old-fashioned dacha right under the Metro North tracks, but they even have live music and other performances paced according to the comings and goings of trains. Somehow, it works better than you’d think!

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Restaurant Review: Dacha

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!

Just south of Washington Square, new kid on the block Dacha occupies a somewhat cursed spot that’s seen a succession of restaurants in the past few years. Luck seems to be turning though: the previous tenants, a Thai restaurant, did not go out of business but moved to a larger location. (I actually wonder if Dacha recovered some of their decorations, especially the lamps.) And assuming they remain in business, Dacha will have to move sooner or later, too: the building is slated to be demolished at some point in the NYU 2031 plan. In any case, you can check out Dacha’s web gallery for more pictures of the venue and the food.

The menu covers all the Russian classics and is quite lengthy, without reaching Brighton Beach proportions. Meat and fish cold plates, herring, blini, borscht, vegetable salads, shashlik, chicken tabaka, pelmeni, and home-style potatoes are all there. You’ll also find a few seafood additions (just like in Brighton, again), such as sea bass and mussels, and a caviar menu, offering anything from near-affordable salmon roe to pricey sevruga (no ossetra or beluga). One might question the judiciousness of all this caviar in a neighborhood full of NYU housing, especially when the restaurant itself is pretty laid back, but then, they’re probably courting faculty families and not students.

The hachapuri, Georgian cheese bread, came in the Russified form of a turnover. The crispy puff pastry encased melted cheese similar to the sulguni you find in Brighton Beach supermarkets, and it tasted fine — who doesn’t love puff pastry?

Made with the same puff pastry, the pirozhki were also rather nice,  all with a good filling ratio. They came in three versions: cabbage with tomato sauce and carrot;  potato (not too heavy); and meat (some vegetables would have made the mixture moister).

As often in Russian restaurants, the cold appetizers included a few assortment platters. On the smoked and cured fish plate, the fatty halibut was the best, and the sturgeon was very salty (so much so that I couldn’t tell if it was actually sturgeon). The salmon roe was fine, the smoked salmon was a bit salty and not fatty enough, and the marinated salmon cubes tasted of mint and dill but were too salty. Needless to say, the canned black olives didn’t bring anything.

On the meat plate, the beef tongue was very soft and pretty good, and so was the thinly sliced, aptly spiced basturma. The veal and chicken rulets (poached meat, served cold) were just okay, a bit dry. The last element was supposed to be duck breast, though we weren’t convinced. Also — and this has more to do with the service than the food itself — it took forever to have bread with all that.

The salo plate was slightly more unusual: how often are you served two different versions of pork fat, cured and smoked? Both were thinly cut and very good. Be sure to remove the rind; it’s not edible.

In the eggplant trio, the roasted eggplant caviar was tasty and spicy, but the Georgian eggplant rolled with walnut and grilled eggplant rolls with cheese and herbs were neither greasy nor cooked enough — eggplant is one of the only vegetables that nobody eats when still crunchy.

We even decided to order a salad, for once. The garden fresh vegetable salad was quite simple — tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and lettuce. This kind of reminded me why I never order salads: there’s rarely much to write home about. At least this time it wasn’t drowned in industrial mayo.

Moving on to the mains, I count the pelemeni among the best I’ve had. They didn’t fundamentally differ from less notable renditions, but they hit all the right marks: the slightly irregular shapes confirmed they were made in house, the meat (pork and maybe beef) was very juicy, the dumplings were tossed in butter (and served with sour cream, of course). Delicious. On a different visit, we also tried them as “pelmeni Moscow,” a version baked with eggs, cheese, and dill. I didn’t find them as good, mostly because the combination rendered them a bit dry — more cheese would probably fix it.

The salmon kulebyaka, a pretty big dish for one person, took a little while to come as it was baked to order (the only way to go, indeed). I didn’t find the risotto that the menu promised inside, but a copious piece of salmon cooked just right sat on top of a spinach mixture. A pleasant dill caper cream sauce completed the dish.

The Dacha stew combined tender though not completely melt-in-your-mouth short ribs and potato-tasting potato vareniki with onions. I think potato vareniki go particularly well in stews; I’ve already posted something similar in concept (see my venison goulash here).

Dacha offers three kinds of shashliks: beef, chicken, and sturgeon, each supposedly served with fries (good luck finding them in my pictures).

The sturgeon shashlik, accompanied here by grilled peppers and zucchini, featured fatty and tasty morsels of fish. There was also a sauceboat of good narsharab, reduced pomegranate juice — an Azerbaijan classic. Too bad the sturgeon was ever-so-slightly overcooked.

The beef shashlik was excellent: made from slightly fatty flank steak, served medium well (the kitchen doesn’t always give the choice) but not dry. The chef wouldn’t give away the secret of the delicious marinade spice mix, but did say the meat was marinated for 2 to 4 days. The sides were a bit uneven: the grilled peppers and tomato came at room temperature and lacked salt, and so did the large-grain couscous, although they tasted fine regardless. Very thinly sliced onion and Russian ketchup completed a dish that has the potential to be a truly remarkable shashlik.

The beef Stroganoff, on the other hand, was a let-down. The filet mignon was chewy, cooked beyond well done, and I have to wonder if it it really was filet mignon. The sauce tasted good, but there was very, very little of it. The mashed potatoes were fine.

For sides, the home style potatoes, mushrooms, and onions tasted rather good. There’s a bit of a dill obsession going on, however, which is common in Russian cuisine but not something of which I really approve.

The dessert menu contains half a dozen mostly Russian options. The cherry vareniki featured both a jammy cherry filling and a kind of warm, sweet cherry kompot. A winner.

The “very cherry” plombir was much less successful. Plombir designates a very rich ice cream in Russian (from 12% to a whooping 20% fat). This rather nondescript version tasted just rich and sweet, with only the pale pink color hinting that the flavor might be cherry. It was topped with equally bland cherries and whipped cream, which at least seemed homemade.

The drink menu has a long, ever-changing list of house-infused vodkas that are quite good if you’re into that kind of thing. Try the grapefruit and the pina colada flavors. Vodka by the bottle is relatively affordable, unless you go for the “single harvest” Kauffman, the epitome of grain alcohol masturbation, for $15 a shot / $199 a bottle. There’s also a nice cranberry mors, bitter and sweet at the same time.

In the past months, we’ve seen a few new Russian restaurants promising luxury dining but underdelivering (I’m looking at you, Onegin and Brasserie Pushkin). With its much simpler decor, Dacha promises nothing, and ends up delivering many of the same classic dishes without the delusions of grandeur.  The restaurant chose an attractive price point (3 courses will cost you a bit over $40), and I can easily see myself coming back between my Food Perestroika reviews. I just wish the quality was a bit more consistent (and the service faster), as several dishes were truly excellent, while others suffered from basic salt or doneness problems, and even the best dishes have varied a bit over multiple visits.

Cuisine: Russian
Picks: salo, pelmeni, beef shashlik, cherry vareniki
Food: 7.5/10