"Was it good enough?" our round- bellied waiter asks in a thick Russian accent, pointing at the empty space where dozens of vareniki once lay.
"Good enough," shrugs my friend Steve, playing along.
"I give you more because you are big guy," the waiter tells him, hunching his shoulders in a strongman-gorilla pose. "We control the size here for you."
It's midday and we are slowly digesting away in a miniature ballroom in Walnut Creek, complete with burgundy swags, tapestried panels on the walls, chandeliers, and a disco ball. The column next to me is coated in a snakeskin mosaic of tiny burgundy tiles. At one end of the room is an open doorway leading to a brightly lit deli. A customer in tinted glasses looks around for the owners -- who are in the back making our food -- then snitches a pickle out of the jar to munch while he browses the shelves. At the other end of the room is a small stage, backed by an abstract mosaic of mirrors and black tiles, next to an upright piano. The room smells like beets and smoked meat. And it's ready to rock.
Sure enough, it does. Leo Malkov, our waiter and, as it turns out, the owner of Babushka Restaurant and Deli, switches on the television for the three tables in the restaurant to watch a recorded advertising spot. First we see Babushka's logo -- an old grandmother, of course -- then a long, sultry pan over a table laden with Slavic delicacies and, finally, dancing girls. The disco bulb throwing balls of rainbow light across the restaurant, two beauties in matching red halter tops and skirts dance around the room to a bouncy pop number, every now and again singing along for the camera.
The Malkovs, who moved to the States from Tashkent a decade ago, opened Babushka as a deli and cafe in 1997. Two months ago the family renovated the cafe, wrote up a new dinner menu, and changed "cafe" to "restaurant." Now they're open for lunch and dinner seven days a week, serving straightforward, home-style Russian food.
Salads, soups, and dumplings make up the lunchtime menu, which endeavors to stick to the light side of Russian cuisine, if there is any such thing. Babushka's food is honest and hearty and fresh. "We have no cooks," the owner tells us. "We are a family restaurant and we make everything ourselves. My wife and I do the cooking."
Of course Babushka has borscht, but I'm instead instructed to order the solyanka, which the owners just finished making. The menu describes it as a soup with 25 kinds of sausages. How can I say no? It's kind of a dream come true. Unfortunately, though, there's no way to tell whether the menu is telling the truth because all 25 sausages are cut into a quarter-inch dice. When it arrives, the soup appears layered: shredded potatoes, carrots, and cabbage in the bottom -- still firm enough to hold together, yet silky in the mouth -- followed by the 25 sausages, a ruddy broth coated with oil from the meat, a few olives, and a fine shower of dill leaves. Once you dip your spoon into the broth, you realize there's a dab of sour cream floating in the middle, and it adds a rich tartness to the meaty stew.
Salad doesn't seem to be a weight-loss food in Russia. The Olivier salad, one of those national dishes like coleslaw if you're American or French fries if you're Belgian, combines al dente boiled potatoes, boiled eggs, carrots, pickles, green peas, and a little garlic in a thick mayonnaise. The pickles actually add a welcome salty, vinegary note that counteracts the creaminess of the dressing. Mayonnaise also coats the grated beet salad, and the vegetables have turned the dressing a gorgeous winey purple. (In fact, I wonder if the owners didn't choose burgundy tablecloths to minimize stain damage.) A few shredded prunes amplify the richness of the beets, and walnuts add a meaty crunch.
Vareniki, traditional Ukrainian dumplings that resemble Polish pierogi, come filled with your choice of cheese, potato, or sour cherry. Apparently Steve looks more imposing to strangers than he does to us, because he receives more cheese vareniki, pint-size half-moons stuffed with a tangy cheese the consistency of ricotta, than he can eat on his own. The dumplings are boiled, then slathered with sour cream. They're great -- chewy but not rubbery, monochromatic but not bland -- but I'd recommend ordering a salad alongside to keep things interesting.
"I made the cherry cake three hours ago," the owner tells us, and recommends the three of us share two pieces. He brings over two four-inch-high squares, one bigger than the other. "This is the normal size," he says, pointing to the smaller one. "The bigger one is for you." He makes the gorilla gesture again at Steve. Paul and I begin to look at Steve with new respect. The cake is fine -- a little dry, with six or seven thick layers of pink cherry pastry cream in the middle -- but a bit overblown for my taste.
I come back on a Friday night for the dancing girls. To my dismay, they're not included with dinner, but at night the room is ripe for romance. The lights are dimmed and the disco ball is spinning. A man in his late fifties operates a Wurlitzer-sized synthesizer contraption, crooning Russian pop songs to a bossa nova beat, while a Russian couple in their sixties foxtrots dreamily around the room. They're the only other customers here and are preoccupied with each other, which is good, because it takes my dining companions several minutes to check their awe.
This time, the Malkovs' son waits on us. Again, the service is chatty and familiar. I have a glass of a sunny, fruity red wine and my friend a lightly oaked, juicy white, which might be Georgian, Romanian, or Moldavian, since the small wine list is divided into those three regions, but I can't get the waiter to identify them beyond "dry white" or "dry red." Another companion quaffs a stein of Estonian lager, one of three or four Eastern European beers on the list; there's no vodka on offer. Many of the menu items are carried over from lunch, their prices knocked up a couple of dollars, supplemented by a few meatier entrées.
Both of our appetizers are meant to be eaten on slices of brown bread. The smoked fish plate contains slices of silky, smoky whitefish and cold-smoked salmon, both excellent, garnished with lemons and olives. The Babushka salad is the culinary cognate of babaghanoush, roasted eggplant pureed with tomatoes and a bit of sugar into a slightly cloying sweet-tart eggplant jam. While we're finishing them off, Barry Manilov leaves the stage for a fifteen-minute break, then comes back sporting a new shirt. He opens his second set with "Guantanamera" -- in Russian.
The vegetarian at the table orders the cheese blintzes, thin crepes wrapped around sweetened farmers' cheese and then sautéed until the edges are slightly crisp. The accompanying little ramekin of sour-cherry preserves puts the dish into the dessert zone, however. The chicken Kiev, a boned leg of chicken stuffed with ham and cheese and rolled in fluffy breadcrumbs, has lost most of its contents during cooking. What remains tastes good, and the dill-sprinkled fries get snapped up.
If beets and potatoes are two of the holy triumvirate of Russian vegetables, cabbage is the third, shown off in the golubtsy, cabbage leaves wrapped around a succulent forcemeat of spiced ground beef. The cabbage rolls are braised in a dill-flecked tomato sauce that, like many of the sauces here, are lightly sweetened. Dill also flavors the other species of dumplings on the menu, Siberian pelmeni. A handful of it tops the sour-cream slathered on the little hat-shaped dumplings, which are filled with a simply seasoned pork-beef-onion mixture and boiled. Again, they're tender and delicious, but I'm glad I'm picking at my companions' food to relieve the monotony.
The Napoleon proves my suspicion that Russian desserts are like Persian cats: more fluff than meat. It takes two spoonfuls to reduce the Napoleon to a big, shaggy heap. Untouched, thin layers of phyllo perilously support voluminous amounts of custard and toasted coconut, but it collapses at a touch, and in the mouth the ensemble is all cream and crunch, with little flavor. Slightly more substantial is a walnut roll, a cross-section of a soft pastry filled with rich walnut paste and drizzled with chocolate syrup.
I like Babushka. The homey food seems at odds with the decor, but it's honest and tasty and deserves a crowd that isn't scared away by the restaurant's Ethan Allen baroque. As my friends and I sit in the glow of the swirling lights, swilling the last of our mystery wine, our waiter gestures at us to join in the dancing. We shake our heads en masse, trying not to look terrified that he'll insist. It'd take some serious vodka to get me on the dance floor. I'm more content to watch the Russians rumba.
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