If you're (like me) of Eastern European descent, then it's possible that there is someone from Russia in your heritage...for me, it's my maternal grandfather, who was allegedly from Minsk (these stories can grow hazy). Arriving in the US sometime around 1914, as a teenager and fairly broke, he took up work as a tailor, and eventually his whole family arrived here, first on the lower east side, then to the Bronx, and eventually to the Rockaways...and perhaps that's what draws me to the ocean...even though I hate the sun and can't swim worth a shit. So, in actuality, nothing draws me to the ocean (which is weird cause I lived in California for 18 years), I always need an excuse and food is usually the excuse I use.
Enter Brighton Beach. Everyone has heard how cool it is, how it's like a different world out there, with its nightclubs, Russian oligarchs, beautiful women (it's those cheekbones), not-so-beautiful women who look like Cossacks, fur coats, cigarettes, vodka, the boardwalk (there's that beach again) and so on.
And, the food. This, to me, is the raison d'etre for Brighton Beach, and it's the reason Significant Eater and I, along with our niece and her sidekick, took a drive out to Brighton on a chilly Saturday afternoon. Out past the benches of Ocean Parkway, between the McMansions of Manhattan Beach and loneliness of Coney Island on a winter's weekend day, sits Brighton Beach...by the way, it's easy to get there on the subway, on a number of different lines.
We shopped at M & I International, whose smoked and cured meats section makes Di Palo's look like your local bodega - they're not bad on the smoked fish either. We walked on Brighton Beach Avenue, and window shopped all the grocers, fur stores, jewelry stores and more. And we were hungry, so we ended up here...
Yes, it's Varenichnaya folks, on Brighton 2nd St. And it was damn good. Delicious garlicky borscht, sweet and tender pelmeni and vareniki - both are dumplings, btw, one Russian and one Ukrainian, and relatives of the pierogi, which is Slavic, but really, I can't keep track of them all. Suffice to say that we fought over a large platter of each ($6.50), one stuffed with veal and the other with potatoes and mushrooms; both came slathered in butter, browned onions, sour cream, etc. Showing little restraint, we also ordered the pork stew, which came in a pot that looks just like the one atop the awning above, and which had so much garlic and scallions in it that we figured we wouldn't catch colds or see vampires for the rest of 2009. Oh, and 2 skewers of sturgeon, for $3.50 each. That's right, sturgeon - which at Russ & Daughter's sells for about $50 a pound. Not measley skewers, either, but laden with chunks of sturgeon. Served with a slice of lemon and a pile of raw onions, and delish. And a whole, semi-forgettable loaf of bread. All that food, along with a pitcher of a drink called Kompot, which was actually more like Hawaiian punch, so do like the natives and bring along a little bottle of something, ummm, a bit more potent...we saw people drinking cognac and brandy...was $56.
On the way back to the city, take a drive by Coney, and say goodbye, because much of Coney is slated for the wrecking ball. It's beautiful, in its own lonely way, isn't it?