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!
Volna, which means wave in Russian, is the first restaurant you’ll see on the Brighton Beach boardwalk if you come from Coney Island. With its giant ice cream cone and the waiters standing outside to invite customers in, you can hardly miss it.
The menu, a behemoth fit to compete with Tatiana Grill, lists about 20 appetizers, 20 salads, 10 soups, 30 fish entrées, 30 meat entrées, plus a variety of sides, dumplings and desserts. Even though some of the dishes turn out to be unavailable when you order them, you have to wonder how the kitchen manages to remember how each of them is prepared. You will find all the Russian and Brighton Beach classics, but here are some of the more unusual offerings: smoked catfish, baked eel in spicy sauce, tuna Stroganoff, stuffed chicken neck, stuffed beef intestine, foie gras (again), baked escargots with cheese, and Belgian waffles.
We started the meal with a carafe of home-made kompot, a sweet but pleasant drink flavored with strawberry and pear (and an excellent vodka chaser).
From the cold appetizers, the basturma (spicy cured beef) was particularly good: tender, slightly marbled with fat, not too dry, and with a tasty spice coating. Of course it’s not not home-made, but this may very well be one of the best I’ve ever eaten. The Odessa-style eggplant reminded me of the one at Tatiana Grill, as well: I’d bet it came straight from a jar, with a cherry tomato and a branch of parsley as sole enhancements. $9 for something that you can get for less than $2/lb at the supermarket around the corner.
The herring, which must have come from the same supermarket, was even more disappointing: too salty, not really brined, and full of bones.
Far from saving the day, the khachapuri was impressively bland: the dish contained no salt at all, the cheese had no taste, and the dough was heavy. At least it was made to order, and it looks fine in the picture!
The Moscow-style sturgeon (another dish I had tried at Tatiana Grill) came in a clay pot with caramelized onions, potatoes, shitake mushrooms, a cream and wine sauce, and cheese on top. The fish had a bit of what I call a “muddy” taste, as sturgeon often does, but was cooked properly. There was a commendable effort in the preparation and it showed in the result.
The chalakhach (grilled lamb chops) was equally good. When the server informed us that it’s impossible to prepare lamb chops rare, I thought we were off to a bad start. Nevertheless, the meat arrived well done but not overdone; the marinated chops managed to be juicy and very tasty. The accompanying onion was thinly sliced as it should be, sprinkled with sumac, nothing like the inedible thick slices most places throw on all their kebab plates. The dish also came with a nice mix of multicolored cooked sweet peppers, red cabbage, and a slightly out of place but decent toasted pita.
The beef Straganoff was tasty and promising but the meat wasn’t cooked quite long enough — too bad. The sides plunged us back into a supermarket nightmare: plain and unsalted noodles straight from a box, nasty canned peas, and a ridiculous leaf of lettuce that no customer in their right mind would eat.
The cutlet Volna, a chicken cutlet stuffed with cream and mushrooms, Kiev-style, was a disaster. The excessive breading made it too crunchy by far, and it tasted like old deep-frying oil. The inside tasted so much of dill that it was borderline inedible — we barely touched the dish. It came with the nasty canned peas, fries that weren’t fried, and that stupid leaf of lettuce.
Finally, the meat vareniki, topped with yummy caramelized onions were just OK. The dough was fine and not too thick, but the filling was very mealy and dry, with not enough meat and fat. Were they home-made? You can buy so many kinds of dumplings in Brighton supermarkets that it’s hard to say (especially since these weren’t that good), but I’d be ready to believe they were.
We didn’t try the desserts. Except for the pancakes, none of them were really Russian.
It’s hard to give a rating to Volna. If you’re lucky enough to order the right dishes, you can enjoy a tasty, well-executed Russian meal. But if you go wrong, you’ll be dining on canned food and bad cutlets…
Picks: basturma, Moscow-style sturgeon, chalakhach
Avoid at all costs: cutlet Volna