The mix of Russian restaurants in Brighton Beach has changed profoundly in the past few years. While the typical establishment was once a giant nightclubby place like the National, where Casio-pounding entertainers in sequins regaled tables of vodka-swigging conspicuous spenders, the landscape today presents a larger variety of choices, from German-inspired beer halls like KeBeer (recently reviewed in these pages) to smaller, family-oriented restaurants that offer big-screen TVs instead of floor shows.
One of the latest family-style places is Skovorodka (“The Skillet”), located in the shadow of the Q train on Brighton Beach Avenue, just steps from the elevated station. While the nightclubs featured a combination of food that might be described as Russian peasant meets old-school haute cuisine (remember that French was the scarf of the czars), the menu at Skovorodka leans more toward regional fare from former Soviet republics, minimizing the importance of cream-heavy retro-French.
From Georgia (the Caucasus, not Dixie) comes katchapuri—a shiny, egg-washed flatbread stuffed with a luxuriant quantity of pale cheese—and chicken tabaka, a flattened pullet fried golden-brown, then littered with crushed garlic. It might just be the finest fried chicken you’ve ever tasted. Both are stunningly cheap at $5.95 and $9.95, respectively. One Georgian dish I hadn’t tried before was kupati, a luscious pork sausage bent into a horseshoe and laced with pomegranate syrup. Two to an order, the links are tart and intensely porky, without a trace of sweetness. Entrées come with a wad of dilled cole slaw, and a choice of rice pilaf, kasha, mashed potatoes (all good), or awful crinkly-cut frozen fries. Hello, school lunch!
The Russian peasant stuff is no less impressive. Though the menu describes pelmeni as “ravioli,” these miniature lamb dumplings resemble tortellini: shaped, as the Italians say, like Venus’s navel. Fifteen are deposited in a bowl with a side of thick sour cream, festively delivered in a gravy boat—but you don’t need the dairy product; in fact, it masks the meaty savor of the dumplings. Another peasant classic is the bland-sounding “potatoes and mushrooms” ($12.95). The comparatively astronomical price should clue you in to the fact that something special is being offered. Instead of the frozen fries, here we have irregular shards of Yukon gold spuds tossed with wild mushrooms sautéed in parsley and garlic.
Of the groaning plates of fish, charcuterie, and brined vegetables that form the appetizing staples of a Russian banquet, none is more curious than the pickle plate ($13.95). With its assortment of cabbage cole slaw, black olives, Kirby cukes, wedges of watermelon, mushrooms, and an entire ripe tomato—all pickled—the app sprawls across at least two continents and several cultures. If you’re going to pick one starter, though, consider the entire preserved mackerel ($7.95), which swims up to the table cut in thick slices, head and tail included. When I took a couple of Tokyo-based bloggers with me to Skovorodka one evening, they gasped at the large size of the fish—”One slice would be considered enough in a Japanese restaurant.” A sustainable fish with dark, oily flesh, the mackerel sports enough smoke to satisfy barbecue enthusiasts.
Ultimately, you should put a meal together without regard for distinctions the menu makes between apps and mains. Indeed—once again to the amazement of my Japanese friends—the tables of Russian diners around us were ordering way too much food, skewed toward appetizers, of which they finished only a fraction. I suspect that the diners desired lots of leftovers, and that the appetizers are better for that than the mains. Other highlights of the menu, which runs to hundreds of items, include roast mutton ribs, pan-sautéed whole flounder, beef goulash (though the serving is comparatively small), and green borscht, which has an engagingly acidic taste and creamy appearance. The acid may help you digest the meat-heavy meal that is likely to follow.
Bar-wise, you can wash your dinner down with non-alcoholic pitchers of kvass, a beverage made out of fermented pumpernickel; or a selection of Russian beers, graded according to alcohol content. A few bottles of wine are available, but these tend to be too expensive to recommend. Which leaves you with what everyone else is drinking at the long tables that surround you, filled with Russians dressed in black for an evening out—little carafes of cut-rate vodka.
The vodka goes perfectly with the death-metal videos being projected on the TVs. “Why are they showing those?” the Japanese bloggers asked me, wrinkling their noses. For once, I couldn’t provide an answer.