So I wasn't surprised that I thoroughly enjoyed the food on my recent trip to Russia, Estonia, and the Ukraine. It's been almost 15 years since the breakup of the U.S.S.R., and, as my favorite guidebook crowed, "If you have not visited Russia since the Socialist era, it is time to be flabbergasted at the sight of over 1,000 eating establishments in Moscow alone." Despite reports of miserable food and worse service during the Intourist era, and terrible shortages for many years after the breakup, I found myself wishing, as I did when I visited Berlin for the first time in the early '90s, that I'd been there at least twice before: prior to 1991 -- or 1989, in Berlin's case -- and in the years directly after, before capitalism had taken hold and lined Friedrichstrasse in old East Berlin with chic boutiques and New Arbat in Moscow with neon-lit casinos.
Still, though I yearned for memories of the GUM department store before it, too, became an arcade of chic boutiques (wherein I purchased two plastic bracelets made in India and pre-priced in rubles, euros, and pounds) topped with a food court (where I dined on succulent and inexpensive golubtsy, aka stuffed cabbage), I was happy to be offered delicious food on a daily basis. There were wonderful soups, including many borschts; almost all were varieties of cabbage borscht, including a Ukrainian version served with savory pampushky, which are little doughnuts. (The only beet borscht I had was in a private home.) I also enjoyed potato soup, beef broth with tiny meatballs, various creamed soups (of turnip, pumpkin, and cauliflower), rassolnik (made with pickle juice), and the delightful, tart schi (made with sorrel).
The only really bad soup was one served in the only bad meal I had, in the otherwise thrilling Ukraina Hotel, housed in one of the famous Gothic wedding-cake Seven Sisters skyscrapers constructed under Stalin (and, as I've always said, I hate Stalin but I love Stalinist architecture). It was an indeterminate sludge, which, the waiter told us, was mushroom soup, information that didn't make any mushroom taste suddenly leap into perspective. I could, however, identify the flavor of the rock-hard chicken Kiev that followed, from which all the butter had mysteriously escaped: "Swanson's," I said, nonchalantly.
But elsewhere there were other, delicious versions (including one stuffed with mushrooms as well as butter), and there was chakhokhbili, a spicy Georgian chicken dish (many people say Georgian cooking is the best to be found in Russia), and plov, an Uzbekistan pilaf, and the requisite stroganoff.
Travel worked its usual magic (what I wanted to do, after, was more travel), as did the food: What I wanted, when I came home, was more Russian food. I invited my family to join me for dinner at Cinderella, on Balboa, but my sister was driving up from her vineyard in Paso Robles and was sure to be tired from the journey, so they talked me into bringing them takeout.
I had an immediate positive reaction to the place as soon as I walked in. The first room read "bakery," with its serried ranks of baked goods in a glass case (and an assortment of salads, smoked fish, and pickles in a small refrigerated case); the second, off to the left, "café," with mirrored walls, wood chairs, and white-linened tables. The rooms were both modest, homey, and simple, but radiated a lovely feeling of order and cleanliness. The menu, packed with many of the things I wanted to eat, offered more than a dozen appetizers and salads (including house-made pickles, marinated vegetables, assorted fish and cold-cut plates), five soups, 10 entrees, and numerous variations on my favorite dumplings, pelmeni and vareniki, as well as a list of blini (crepes served with sides), blinchiki (rolled blini, aka blintzes), piroshki, and Siberian-style pies.
I started by asking for borscht (a beet-and-cabbage version), spinach soup, and pelmeni in broth, a request that was, oddly, denied: "They'll fall apart before you get home," I was told, and was offered frozen pelmeni instead, which I declined, ordering rassolnik soup in their place. I chose several baked savories: fried piroshki stuffed with meat, a glossy baked mushroom piroshki, and two flaky versions, one cabbage, one spinach and feta. (I thought about trying the marinated mushrooms, for something sharp and vinegary, but skipped them after being told the main courses came with homemade pickles and coleslaw.) For entrees, leg of lamb, golubtsy, and the inevitable stroganoff (again, oddly, a server recommended I take all this unheated, "since it'll cool down on your way home"; I didn't point out that it's easier to reheat things that are warm, and, in any event, most everything, nicely packaged in Styrofoam, stayed quite warm indeed. It was a strangely lazy suggestion.) From the beautifully displayed pastries, I chose a slice of almond cake, a square of vatroshka (a cheese pie), and a kartoshka, a fat chocolate-glazed rum roll.
The soups were fabulous (house-baked rye bread, dark and light, and sour cream were sweetly included). The borscht had a lovely balance between sweetness and citric tang; the delicate spinach soup boasted a wedge of white-and-gold hard-boiled egg, pretty against the clear broth and green floating leaves; the rassolnik, full of fat barley grains, was earthy, with bits of kidney as well as sharp pickle juice.
Our favorite among the piroshkis was the enormous, greasy fried one stuffed with crumbled beef, and we also enjoyed the flaky-pastried spinach and feta version (both the mushroom and the still-green-and-crispy cabbage seemed a little underseasoned -- a frequent comment on traditional Russian cooking, which is much less spicy than, for example, Georgian food).
The main courses were, uniformly, less interesting than the starters: The slightly gloppy stroganoff was undistinguished, though its sauce was nice on a fluffy mound of kasha (aka buckwheat groats, chosen from a list of five sides, including french fries and rice); the two long cabbage rolls in a fresh tomato sauce were pleasant, but again underseasoned (and the mashed potatoes alongside seemed innocent of dairy); the one slice of leg of lamb had a good lamb flavor, slightly obscured by its surprising topping of creamy sauce, and we loved its boiled new potatoes topped with fresh dill. The coleslaw was first rate, as were the sliced pickles.
The best of the three pastries was the slice of several-layered almond cake, with fragile crumb and suave frosting; the firm pastry of the vatroshka was a little unyielding, and the rum roll, bizarrely, had no flavor of rum at all, "though it's a very good, rich chocolate cake," my mom said.
I yearned for those missing pelmeni, however, which were the first thing I ordered when I returned for lunch in situ with my hungry friend Joyce (and her two-month-old, Violet, who snoozed through the meal). But they weren't the first thing served. That would be the blini with smoked salmon, two large, supple crepes, accompanied by three long strips of the excellent-quality fish, sour cream, and (after I asked) a little pot of feathery snipped fresh dill: divine. As was the fat square of Siberian meat pie we shared, a glossy pastry filled with clear noodles and crumbled beef. And the pelmeni, sturdy beef-filled dumplings with perfect pasta dough (Cinderella also offers veal, chicken, and turkey ones), which came in chicken broth, sprinkled with more fresh dill and served with, yes, more sour cream. (Luckily I never get tired of either; in fact, I think sour cream improves everything it touches.)
For dessert we continued with the boiled dumpling theme: crescent-shaped vareniki, in slightly thicker dough than the almost-translucent pelmeni, stuffed with sweetened farmer's cheese, and served with raspberry jam and sour cream. (Also available: potato vareniki, topped with fried onions, and sour cherry vareniki.)
This was a perfect, perfect, perfect meal. (Joyce said, "I'm coming back!" after her first taste of the blini; when I pointed out that there was considerably more to come, she said she had fallen in love with the place on entering, as I had. And she had wanted to proclaim her inevitable return earlier, after an initial bite of fresh rye bread slathered with butter.)
On the way out, we bagged a square of vatroshka and a kartoshka for Joyce ("Tell me if you taste the rum flavor," I asked her), and a fat little chocolate éclair and a few cookies for me. We were also taking home leftovers from lunch. I scored half a dozen pelmeni, which reheated beautifully in their broth, completely intact, just as I thought they would, despite the wacky earlier warning. (It was as nutty as when a pretentious French chef told me not to reheat my leftover choucroute in a microwave; "I don't have one," I replied, automatically, but then wondered what possible damage could be done to sauerkraut, smoked meat, and sausage, items that seem rather microwave-proof, on consideration.) I only wished I had more of the pelmeni. As I did the lovely simple buttery cookies. The next time I went to Cinderella, I would be taking home a great deal more of both.