Russian Delights

Kalina takes diners on a journey they won't forget across the former Soviet Union

One of the best parts of this job is that I get to try new foods (new to me, at least).

Such was the starter at Kalina, a restaurant that brings the foods of Belarus, Ukraine and other former Soviet states to the far eastside. The appetizer was called Herring Wearing a Fur Coat ($5). This small dish is so packed with fantastic flavors that it makes you want to order it again. Shredded red beets, Yukon gold potatoes, carrots, fresh apples and chopped, pickled herring were layered in a small cocktail glass, then topped with a "fur coat" of mayonnaise. Best of all, it was served perfectly chilled. Truly something out of the ordinary around these parts.

The other starter was piroshky ($2). We had one order of each filling: mushroom, carrots and onions; and braised cabbage. The dough was light and soft. The fillings were tasty but scarce.

The dining room is small and washed in yellow. Beautiful shawls in flowered and paisley patterns act as curtains that shield diners from a view of the parking lot. Other touches of Russia hang on the walls and shelves; one is an open china cabinet with teapot and teacups.

As for the service, we couldn't have had a better person taking care of us. His name was Vladimir, although, unlike with the chef, I wondered whether he was really Russian. No matter. He took pride in the food he was serving. He explained dishes, suggested others and checked on us just often enough.

Entrées come with a choice of soup or salad, and you have a choice of two soups or any of the salads. In summer they serve cold borscht (cold beet soup with potatoes, a hard-cooked egg and sour cream). In winter, a similar soup is served hot. We chose that over the mushroom soup and the Kalina eggplant salad.

The soup popped with the sweetness of the beets balanced by the other ingredients. It was easily a meal in itself.

The salad consisted of dark greens, finely chopped red peppers, feta and eggplant cooked soft. It came with a garlic/lemon/olive oil dressing that, while heavy on the garlic, was done with a fine hand.

The St. Petersburg beef stroganoff ($19; $12 at lunch) was served over egg noodles. The creamy white wine sauce was laced with lots of tender beef. The noodles stood up to the rich and savory sauce. This was a perfect example of this dish, and the portion was so large that we ended up taking half of it home.

The chicken Kiev ($18; $12 at lunch) was a bit different than most versions of this dish; the chicken was ground white meat instead of a whole breast. That seemed odd at first, but any doubts I had were erased with the first bite. Inside was herb butter that had melted with the heat (I noticed dill and parsley). The outside was lightly coated and seasoned. It was a fine example of a classic dish. It came with wonderful mashed Yukon gold potatoes and a mixture of minced mushroom, onions and carrots similar to the piroshky filling. The mixture was earthy and rich, and would work with just about any entrée. The plate also included a pickle of red cabbage, apple and beets, with one lonely green olive.

Although the room was almost empty at dinner, nearly every table was filled at lunch. That was due in part to the daily Russian high tea service. We opted out of that, but we did order tea ($6). Our server (the same charming young man) informed us that they were out of the tea we wanted, but we found one to our liking. It was served from one of the teapots sitting in the cupboard.

The lunch menu is similar to the dinner menu, but with lower prices. There also are some sandwiches.

My dining partner ordered the Monte Cristo sandwich (which came with soup or salad). She wanted the borscht. Normally we don't order the same dish twice, but because her bubbe was from Russia and often made borscht, we ordered it again. She proclaimed it "very Russian grandmother" and said it brought back memories of the kind she ate growing up. Now that's what authentic means.

The Monte Cristo sandwich was prepared with small, thin, bread slices filled with sweet ham, smoked turkey and Swiss and cheddar cheese, then dipped in egg batter, fried and sprinkled with powdered sugar. It was light, lovely and very ladylike (and, as my companion noted, a great dish for getting kids to try some of the restaurant's food).

I had the Moscovite pork chops ($12; $18 at dinner). A boneless chop had been dipped in egg batter and lightly pan-fried. It was served with the same sides that accompanied the Kiev, except for the potatoes. Instead, it came with a nice pilaf. The chop was the least successful of the dishes we tried at Kalina. I found it a bit tough (a steak knife would've helped immensely) and the coating didn't adhere to the meat. Plus it needed salt, a "no" in my book.

Our desserts—one at dinner, one at lunch—would've been ideal for the high tea. The kitchen divided our choices as requested and spared nothing in the presentations. At dinner, dessert was Russian Day and Night Cake ($6). Thin layers of chocolate cake and white cake were interspersed with vanilla and chocolate buttercream frostings. A bit of chocolate sauce dressed the top of the cake. Rich? Yes, but also light and perfectly sweet. The Russian Tea Jam Cake resembled the other, but this time it was all white cake layered with strawberry jam. Again, just the right amount of sweetness.

There's also a Sunday brunch service, which must be popular because I couldn't get reservations until past my deadline.

I highly recommend Kalina whether you had a Russian bubbe or not.

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