Food

Taste the Traditional Vegetarian Russian Fare at Masha and the Bear

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Just two weeks after opening, Vitaly Sherman, owner of Masha and the Bear (771 Grand Street), is already finding success with his traditional Russian fare, and he is looking forward to having borscht vodka on tap, because both staples are vital to the cuisine.

Sherman’s restaurant is named after the Russian cartoon, about a naughty girl named Masha and a resigned circus bear. (Coincidentally enough, Sherman’s wife is named Masha.)

While “Russian food” may conjure images of boiled meats and potatoes, Sherman says the cuisine is intrinsically connected to Russian culture and Russian Orthodox Christianity, which means many traditional dishes are vegetarian. “Of course, in any Christian religion, there are certain days where you can’t eat any animal products at all,” he says. “So the almost 1,000-year-old cuisine in Russia is vegan as well. Otherwise we would have to adjust the regular dishes.”

And besides, he says, “meat was expensive — even though we use a lot of meat in our traditional cooking, there’s a lot of traditional dishes that don’t use meat. People who can’t afford a product, they have to become creative with the products that they can afford.”

At Masha, many of the dishes draw from these vegetarian traditions, and the restaurant will soon introduce vegan dishes as well. We dropped by for some of the classic Russian comfort food, including vareniki ($9), traditional Russian borscht ($6), and homemade potato pancakes ($6).

The vareniki are dumplings — a very slight variation on pierogi — that are stuffed with potatoes or cabbage and can be ordered boiled or fried. We ordered our vareniki boiled, in both variations, because boiled vareniki pair better with vodka, while fried vareniki pair better with beer. And we were definitely drinking vodka.

The cabbage vareniki was slightly sweet with a hint of onion, which provided a tanginess. The potato vareniki was akin to mashed-potato-stuffed dumplings, with a soft, creamy texture.

The borscht here is light and filled with chopped beets; after each spoonful, you’ll get a little kick of garlic. The soup floats a dollop of sour cream, which creates a milky texture — be sure to mix the sour cream in well so you can get the full effect. Griddled peasant bread served on the side adds pleasant buttery crunch.

Drinking vodka with your borscht is an established practice in Russia. First, you blow all the air out of your mouth, then take a shot of vodka, and then eat a spoonful of borscht. The vodka acts as a palate-cleanser.

Finally, the potato pancakes serve as a sort of neutralizer between the vareniki and borscht. Subtle and comforting, they’re like hashbrowns laced with a little onion.