It had been a very long day.
Emily and I had spent much of the day out shopping, and both of us were more than ready to put our weary feet up and get some solid dinner. The words of a trusted friend led us to the front door of a particular restaurant in the Cultural District of Portland… and no farther.
That’s the funny thing about spending the day shopping- as necessary as everything we got may have been, perusing the prices on the posted menu gave us pause. It sounded heavenly… but heaven would have to wait.
“Well shit.. where now? What are you tasting?”
“…Yeah, same… don’t you have a list of places to try now?”
It was true. Since starting on this food writing gig, I’ve learned that one of the best ways to find good food is to hit the streets and ask where everyone is eating. As it happens, my friend Sam had given me a lead on some theoretically cheap eats a while back.
”Hey, you feeling Russian?”
A short bus ride away, and only a couple blocks off the river on the east side, lies Kachka, where Sam assured me the food was wonderful and I could “eat the menu for under $60.” This was not COMPLETELY true, though the effect to which it was is worth mentioning later.
Despite my Eastern European Jewish roots and the care of a Polish woman in my youth, my knowledge of Russian food is absurdly slim. Following is a complete list of my prior knowledge of Russian cuisines, informed mainly by visits to “Red Square”- a Soviet-themed bar formerly in one of the casinos of Atlantic City, so I will freely admit my expectations were mixed-to-low.
1. Fish are involved. Likely smoked, sometimes cured.
2. Sour cream.
3. Potatoes, cabbage, and other hardy vegetables.
4. Pork or game are the preferred non-piscine proteins.
5. VODKA, and the eating of food based around consuming it in vast quantities.
As with Cuban food at Pambiche, I was never so happy to be proven right AND wrong.
Emily and I had the exact same impression as soon as we walked in- “Elegant rustica.” The restaurant gave in only slightly to the expected decor of its Russian theme. Soviet-esque small posters trailed up one wall, depicting smiling workers and food. To one side of the bar hung a small portrait of Lenin. Apart from that, however, the ambiance of the room was comfortable ease, even as crowded as it was.
Arriving as walk-ins, we were informed that we could sit at the bar or in the lounge almost immediately. The “lounge” was a circular area far forward of the dining room, close to the front window.
Once presented with the menus, Emily and I quickly saw where the expected kitsch from the walls went. The menus were littered with a tongue-in-cheek humor regarding the nature of each offering and what the diner might expect.
Emily was… skeptical to say the least.
More for me then.
First courses involved the toughest choices. Fully two-thirds of the menu was given over to zakuskie- small plates of various cold and hot snacks meant to be consumed with copious amounts of- you guessed it- vodka. You could pick and choose from their selection, or for $25 a person and the full tables’ cooperation, you could get a chef’s selection from the cold menu. There being only two of us, we decided to just pick whatever seemed most delicious. I chose their hot smoked king salmon with toasts, and Baltic Sprat Buterbrodi- a simple presentation of tiny fish on pumpernickel toast with a parsley mayo. Emily plumbed for their cod liver pashtet- a kind of runny mousse.
I had opted for Golubtsi- pork-filled sweet/sour cabbage rolls in a tomato sauce and a drizzle of sour cream. This was only somewhat familiar to me, as I had had stuffed cabbage leaves prepared by a family member before. Emily similarly chose something vaguely familiar- Tvorog Vareniki, tiny pirogi-esque dumplings filled with scallion and cheese.
It was pasta… and cheese…. with onions… warm in a bowl. Of course she would get that- she pretty much knew I was going for *thing with pork in it* too, though it was a hard choice between that or the Beef Shashlick (which I am DEFINITELY getting next time.)
I apologize for the quality of the pictures here. I was trying to be quick and careful because 1. I absolutely HATE being “that person” that lets their food get cold while they are taking pictures of it, and 2. I took one look and knew I needed to get these little tubes of delicious in my face as rapidly as possible.
The vareniki were little pillows of cheesy loveliness, of a lighter texture and flavor than I would have expected. The golubtsi were similarly astounding. The smell of cooked cabbage (which I normally dislike) was utterly absent, replaced by the bright acidity of the tomato sauce and the richness of the solidly-packed pork. I had anticipated a punch and a steel weight in my stomach- I got a pat on the back and a belly rub.
A splendid evening required a splendid ending, and Emily and I agreed that dessert and tea were to be had. The dessert menu was modest, but appropriate- a variation on a berry shortcake, an ice cream, a dessert preparation of Emily’s vareniki featuring sour cherries. All quite acceptable- but after delicious (and copious) food, it was the cookies that caught our eye. It’s not all that bizarre- we wanted something pleasantly sweet and crunchy to go with our tea, and the menu claimed that the cookies “could change your life.”
Tea arrived, and I will happily admit- yes. The little cookies at the end of such a fine dinner were ABSOLUTELY PERFECT. Oreshki- little caramel-filled nut-shaped cookies came in a small cup and offered tiny spikes of sweetness, while the Chocolate Kolbasa cookies came ice-cold and smacked of rich chocolate and toasted hazelnut.
“Mmmm… better, love?”
“Oh yes… probably more fun than that other place would have been, too.”
“Agreed…. course now I want some more watermelon pickle juice.”
“… No, dear. Let’s get home. You need to write.”
That’s how I know I have the best wife. She joins me for tasty fish, and reminds me when I need to be writing, and not drinking pickle juice.
It’s an interesting life we have.
WHERE: Kachka, 720 SE Grand Ave., Portland, OR
WHEN: Daily, 4- midnight.
HOW: Drop in, or check out their website at http://www.kachkapdx.com for how to get reservations or reserve their back room.
WHY: Because you are in the mood for something different, but oddly familiar. You want to feel elegant, but relaxed at the same time, and kinda want to enjoy some good liquor with curious finger foods.