When it opened a couple of years ago at 813 Avenue U, spawned by a grocery that sold frozen dumplings, Russian Ravioli was instantly thronged with a hip young crowd pausing for a quick bite on the way to the dance clubs. As I finished up a plate of pelmeni one evening, the waiter leaned over and said something that stuck with me: “You know, we don’t have this kind of restaurant back in Russia.”
Apparently, it was an idea whose time had come, because a flock of similar storefronts have opened in Brooklyn. These stand in sharp contrast to the Brighton Beach ballrooms frequented by the older set, which demands bottles of vodka on every table, a Casio orchestra droning sentimental ballads, and expensive, long-winded meals. At the new breed of informal Russian cafés, the furniture is purely functional, the food is cheap, and the menu includes selections from all corners of the former Soviet Union. Emphatically, no alcohol is available.
Recently, I dined with a group of Russian students at Harchevnya, the newest of these fast-food joints, located under the elevated W tracks in Gravesend. It’s named after a Georgian beef soup notable for its heavy component of cilantro and dill, and indeed the cafés version of harcho was very good. Served with brown bread and butter, it made a wonderful meal at $3.50. We chased it with salads that appeared the moment we ordered them, including olivie—cubed vegetables and ham in mayo; vinegrette-shredded carrots, canned peas, and beets that turn the salad bright red; and the best, “home style eggplant”—fried slices topped with a sweet herbal dressing.
Half of Harchevnya’s menu is devoted to dumplings, served in massive platters for less than $5, including Ukrainian vareniki, Russian pelmeni, Uzbekistani manti, and Georgian henkali, the latter shaped like a round coin purse with a pucker at the top. Mantled with black pepper, they’re a dead ringer for the soup dumplings found in Shanghai restaurants, though less delicate. Henkali are a bit messy to eat, since you’re supposed to grab a dumpling by its topknot, then nibble at the bottom, sucking out the gravy in the process. Traditionally, the topknot is not eaten, but thrown to the dogs who lurk under the table. At Harchevnya, however, it was bring-your-own-pooch.
The heart of the menu is a series of big, single-plate feeds, offered at bizarrely low prices (most $4.50 to $7). The French underpinnings of Russian food become apparent in a wonderful roast rabbit, a haunch quarter bathed in sour cream sauce tinged with cinnamon, sided with a dill-laced cabbage slaw and a morass of very plain mashed potatoes. Miraculously, the bunny isn’t overcooked. Other desirable selections include pork chop Moldavian style, thick and oddly butchered with a wobbly collar of fat, and the Georgian classic chicken tabaka—which we affectionately dubbed “roadkill chicken.” After a few bones are artfully removed, the baby bird is flattened, deep fried to a delicious brown, then strewn with dill and crushed garlic. Ignore the too-sweet dipping sauce. The menu failures dredged up on this and other visits included podzharka pork, a stew flavored with sweet red pepper (“It should have some brown crunchy parts,” Serge exclaimed); and, especially, the intriguing “Brooklyn steak,” extending the borders of the restaurant’s virtual Soviet Union to Gravesend. At $8.50, it’s the most expensive thing on the menu. The huge cut looked like a sirloin, and arrived cooked to a perfect medium. But when we bit into it, the texture was strange and spongy, suggesting a fabricated piece of meat. “Just like McDonald’s Ribecue,” a student expostulated.