To Little Odessa with Oleg
Oleg has driven more than a million miles over 16 years as a cab driver, and now he can barely stand to be behind the wheel. To cope with the long hours on the road, he pops sunflower seeds, sets his cell phone ring to Für Elise, and listens to accordion music from home.
At this point, he told me he has no desire to go back to Moscow, “Now Russia is very criminal. I don’t like this.”
During our journey from Astoria to Brighton Beach, the cabbie tried to fix me up with his 25 year old son (“He’s an accountant. He works on Park Avenue, but he’s at home now. Do you want to meet him?”). Thank you, but…
Oleg quickly changed the subject, telling me that 80% of his adopted neighborhood – also known as ‘Little Odessa‘ – is populated by Russian immigrants: “We speak Russian. We have Russian doctors. We eat Russian food.”
(Travel writer Vitali Vitaliev echoed Oleg’s assessment in a recent article about Brighton Beach. According to Vitaliev, “spiritually, linguistically and psychologically, Brighton Beach is not part of the United States. An American, arriving there by accident, stands out and gets stared at – like an Eskimo in the streets of Abu Dhabi.”)
Of all the Russian eateries in New York’s Little Odessa, Oleg’s favorite is Cherry Hill Gourmet Market. Though this new addition to Brighton Beach’s Russian supermarket scene has been open just five months, it’s already worked its way into the taxi driver’s heart. Just yesterday, he’d eaten a bowl of their salanka soup (with beef, sausage and olives).
They were out of salanka by the time he dropped me off at Cherry Hill, but there were still hundreds (and I mean hundreds) of other goodies to choose from. Oleg got out of his cab to show me around, spreading his arms before the bounty and greeting the unsmiling ladies behind the counter in Russian. I asked him to point out his favorite dishes.
He answered me in English that by then I understood he rarely spoke: “Everything good. Everything.”
There are two ways to gorge yourself at Cherry Hill: in the upstairs cafe with Yanni playing live on multiple flat screen TVs or getting take-out from the deli. I tried both.
If you don’t mind Yanni, a multiculti menu, and curious stares from the well-healed Russians who hang out there, the cafe is worth a visit. Though the blintzes (with cucumber, caviar and salmon) and the kutabi (a pressed pie with boiled beef and onions inside and dried pomegranate outside) were nothing special, the soup was worth the trek.
I tried fish soup ($5) with fresh dill and flat leaf parsley, big chunks of salmon, leeks, carrots and scallions. The vegetables were crunchy, the fish silky, and the herbs gave the broth a clean brightness. No fish soup for you? They also have red borscht, green borscht, chicken bean, and barley. Going to this cafe without trying the soup would be like going to Mexico City and skipping the tacos.
Meanwhile, I’m sure I missed something amazing at the deli, but I tried to pick up as many things as I could: (clockwise from top left) cheese blintzes, barley with caramelized mushrooms and onions, borscht, a veal cutlet, potato-battered chicken stuffed with mushrooms, stewed cabbage and ‘Caucasian’ salad (with cilantro, tomato, and roasted eggplant). All of this cost $14.61. Everything except the blintzes (which were dry) tasted as if it had passed through a babushka’s capable hands.
These goodies were nothing like the Intourist hotel food I remembered eating in Moscow and Kazan and St. Petersburg and Rostov-on-Don and Sochi (where ketchup doubled as pizza sauce and funky pork led to nights of digestive hell) on my first trip to Russia. And they bore no resemblance to the wretched meals my friend’s adopted babushka in Vladimir fixed for us when I went to visit her (we learned to pick the hair out of our piroshki and to be on the lookout for dead flies in the kasha).
One afternoon of stuffing myself with Cherry Hill delicacies was enough to blow all of this Soviet-era gastro-trauma to bits. Thanks to Oleg, my Russian culinary paradigm has totally shifted.
Now if you ask me about Russian food, I’ll forget all about hairy piroshki and wax poetic about stewed cabbage, stuffed chicken, Caucasian salad, and the sublime soups in Little Odessa. As a wise Chowhound named Jim Leff once wrote, “great renditions dispute generalizations everywhere you go.” There’s no better proof than this new Russian superdeli.
Cherry Hill Gourmet Market
The Lundy’s Landmark
1901 Emmons Ave. (at Ocean Ave.) – Brighton Beach, Brooklyn
Open 24 hours, 7 days a week