I usually don’t speak about my day job on this blog, mostly because it has nothing whatsoever to do with adventures in Eastern Bloc cuisine. Or rather, it didn’t until recently…
About two years ago, a small team of researchers at IBM (including yours truly) started working on computational creativity. By winning on Jeopardy, IBM has shown that computers can make inferences about the world as it is. But could they also be creative, and produce quality artifacts that have never been seen before? To investigate, we built a cognitive cooking system.
During numerous trips to the Tokaj-Hegyalja region in Hungary, I’ve had the opportunity to taste hundreds of Tokaji dessert wines, and I’ve managed to build a small personal collection. With no great claim to being a sommelier, I will share with you my impressions about the wines, and stories about the people who make them.
I first wrote about the Royal Tokaji wine company about a year ago, when I reviewed the very precious 1999 Essencia. For more information, the first half of the video below, presented by owner Hugh Johnson, gives a good overview of Tokaj, the region, and Tokaji, the wine. My favorite moment: the capitalist saviors rescuing wild, communist Hungary from its oenologic mediocrity in their big 4WD. The second half of the video is essentially a commercial for Royal Tokaji.
The two Royal Tokaji aszú 5 puttonyos wines that I’m reviewing today have had the rare honor of being featured in the Wine Spectator Top 100 for two consecutive years.
I was recently reading about potato waffles in Culinaire Saisonnier, and it sounded to me like an original, yet also forehead-slappingly obvious, alternative to potato pancakes. I started to picture a decadent waffle oozing with caviar, though down-to-earth material considerations soon had me downgrading to salmon roe. I wanted to transform the idea into a recipe quickly, instead of putting it in my to-do queue where it might have sat for years. This is also a good recipe for Valentine’s Day, your last big excuse to overindulge until next fall’s holiday season!
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!
Taras Bulba is a Ukrainian restaurant chain founded in 1999, with many branches in Moscow and Kiev. The SoHo outpost, however, opened much more recently (this W Broadway space was still occupied by Via dei Mille not so long ago). I actually remember eating in one of the Moscow joints on my way to or back from some Caucasian Adventure or other. Everything looked more or less the same, from the decor to the menu, with the added benefit that in Moscow they’re open 24/7 — can you remind me again which one’s supposed to be the city that never sleeps?
Time for our minute of culture. Taras Bulba, though it may sound like an insult in French, is really a novella by Nikolai Gogol, wherein a family of Zaporozhian Cossacks does Cossack things, including lots of warmongering. It was loosely adapted for film in 1962, with Yul Brynner in the title role. (Brynner was born in Vladivostok, incidentally). And korchma, the word printed on the awning and atop the menu, is not a schizophrenic owner’s second name for the restaurant; a “korchma” simply used to be a kind of tavern in Ukraine.
I’ve written countless times about khachapuri. The Georgian cheese bread is featured in each of my Georgian restaurant reviews at least once, if not more, and it appears on the menus of many Russian restaurants too. I’ve posted my Adjaran version, but I’ve never posted an Imeretian khachapuri, the simplest kind, which consists of a round bread stuffed with cheese.
The reason why I’ve waited so long is that I wanted it to be really good. I’m sure I’ve read most of the khachapuri recipes ever published, and I’ve tried a good dozen different formulas. I also had to make my own cheese, which took yet more time to perfect; I’ve posted my takes on Imeretian cheese and sulguni recently.
Red Alert! Random Eastern European dishes are invading our streets and restaurants! Should you duck and cover, or welcome the enemy?
In a Red Alert almost three years ago, I featured the rather ephemeral M. Wells Diner. After closing over one of those New York lease arguments everybody talks about for a month before forgetting all about it and moving on to the next piece of food gossip, the owners opened M. Wells Dinette at PS1, and more recently, M. Wells Steakhouse, both in Long Island City.
Discussing the Steakhouse outlet, “Orange Alert” may be more appropriate, since most of the dishes I’m going to talk about are somewhat (very) loosely connected to Eastern Europe.
Last time, I took a look at Moldovan food as it’s served in restaurants. Since Moldovans cook at home a lot more often than they dine in restaurants, let’s also visit the Central Market in Chișinău, where many provisions can be bought.
Founded in 1825, Piaţa Centrală is located right in the city center, not far from the bus station (a proximity resulting in double the bustling crowds). It’s not as impressive as the markets of Tbilisi or Tashkent, but it does give a good idea of Moldovan cuisine. To complement the pictures, I will also mention some recipes from Sergey Donika’s Moldovan Cuisine. With 493 recipes, this cookbook contains more stuff than I’ll ever cook in my lifetime.
Back in early December, I went to Lake Ontario for my first duck hunt with Outdoorsman Bill. This may sound like a long trip for a few small birds. After all, there are dozens of Canada geese pooping all over the lawns as nearby as Westchester. Lake Ontario, however, sees a lot of waterfowl species, and in larger amounts. Plus, shotguns aren’t allowed in Westchester (believe me, I checked). Anyway, back to Bill. Not content just hunting ducks, Bill runs a small fleet of charter boats, guides on hard water, and owns a lodge across the marina. If you’re looking for him at the inn’s restaurant, the bartender will point at the live band. While most of the other hunters are sleeping off a long day outdoors before waking up at 4 am to do it again the next day, Bill plays live music at night.
A whole deer, even if you keep the backstraps and legs whole, yields a lot of ground meat, mostly from the neck and the belly. This is nothing to worry about: these are the perfect cuts to make burgers. All you need is a good repertoire of burger recipes. And of course, if you don’t like venison, ground beef from your favorite butcher or CSA (what, you don’t have a CSA???) will do.
I’ve already blogged about Bohemian Venison Burgers and Hungarian Lángos Goulash Burgers. This time, I’m doing a Polish / Belarusian / Ukrainian version. Hey, with enough deer meat, I might post one burger recipe for each country of the Eastern Bloc!
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.
Scotland isn’t reknowned for its Eastern European food, and it takes some dedication to find restaurants from the other side of the Iron Curtain. Glasgow has U Jarka (“Polish and European cuisine, with the good old traditions”) and Cossachok (“Scotland’s first and only authentic Russian Restaurant which represents people from former USSR in cooking, culture, and hospitality”). But if you’re in Edinburgh these days, like I was during my family holiday trip, then Yellow Bench, a Polish hole-in-the-wall in Leith, might very well be your only option.