I live in Midtown, land of breathtakingly mediocre by-the-pound buffets. I always knew that I’d someday find myself loading up a little plastic container at a lameass NYC hot bar, but I really didn’t think I’d enjoy it. Sometimes, you just gotta inhale your crappy hot bar food and get back to work. That’s the New York lifestyle, right?
So I thought that something was a little bit f**ked up when my Russian pal Rimma decided to take me to a grocery store hot bar for Russian food. I had a pretty serious hangover after a long day of Quilmes and a long night of post-Smorgas drinking, and I sometimes get pretty docile when I have a hangover. So when Rimma sent me a very perky text promising great Russian food in Brighton, I wasn’t in any shape to refuse.
And then we went to a grocery store. Um, like, OMG WTF?
Before I continue, a little bit of personal history: when I was a preschooler, my Ukrainian grandmother and Russian grandfather took care of me while my mother attended classes at the local university (go Cyclones!). Most of my earliest memories revolve around my grandparents’ kitchen and garden. My grandfather didn’t speak much English (and I was too little to speak all that much, anyway) so we spent our days sharing bits of food, communicating mostly with gestures and a few words of broken English and Russian.
I particularly loved all of the fresh vegetables from their garden, which was probably a little bit weird coming for a three-year-old Iowa boy. Kapusta (Russian for “cabbage”) was one of my very first words in any language, and I was madly in love with my grandmother’s coleslaw—which in no way resembled the disgusting creamy mayonnaise-y goo that they served at the local grocery store. Grandma let good vegetables taste like good vegetables, just like any other Russian or Ukrainian kitchen wizard. Seasoning meant a little bit of vinegar and oil and salt and pepper, but rarely anything more potent.
And then there were all of the glorious Russian and Ukrainian baked goods, which were a huge part of my childhood. I never really developed a taste for American apple pie, but I would run through a wall for my mother’s barely-sweetened apple cake, made with a sour cream crust. When I visited Russia as an exchange student in the late 1990s, I would visit street kiosks every day for lunch, and eat nothing but a loaf or two of fresh Russian bread. Screw sandwiches—Russian bread, often stuffed with cheese or meat or spinach or egg or fruit or poppy seeds, was a much better way to fatten myself up during a break in classes.
OK, back to 2010. My friend Rimma, who immigrated from Russia at age 9, promised to take me to the outer reaches of NYC for “real Russian food.” And she takes me to a grocery store? What?
Look, Rimma is a real Russian, and I’m just an American kid with some Russian roots. So when it comes to Russian food, I’m willing to do whatever she says. But a grocery store… really?
Of course, Rimma knew exactly what she was doing. We popped into Brighton Bazaar, which has three or four monstrous buffet tables adorning the center of the store. The hot bar was just like the crap you find on every corner in Midtown, except that it was literally ten times larger—and not crappy. Far from it.
I’m sure that Rimma and I acted like goofy drunk fools for the next hour or two. We were like little kids with their noses pressed against the glass window of a candy store, pointing excitedly at things that we hadn’t seen since we were kids. Rimma went crazy over the endless variety of stinky fish dishes (she has a thing for Russian-style gefilte fish), I pretty much lost my s**t when I saw all of the fresh Russian salads and pickles, and we both slobbered all over the baked goods. Brighton Bazaar must have offered well over 100 items on that bar, and it made us both punch-drunk with childhood memories.
After an hour of circling the store like incompetent vultures, we both settled on a few dishes, crammed inelegantly into ugly clear plastic containers. I munched on a fish cutlet just so that I could say that I ate something with protein, but it wasn’t really all that earth-shattering—imagine a meatball, but made with fish. I liked it. (Rimma wouldn’t touch the stuff: “Ewww, that’s probably just made from the leftover scraps of other people’s fish.” Funny.)
But I gorged myself silly on salads—beet salad with potatoes and pickles in a very gentle vinaigrette, fresh pickles that still taste like lightly-salted garden cucumbers, and coleslaw that tasted exactly like grandma’s. Rimma dined on some not-terribly-stinky fish, and we shared a huge, warm chunk of Khachapuri, a round flatbread filled with egg and salty cheese. Imagine an inflated piece of Indian naan, stuffed with a beautifully salty fresh mozzarella cheese, and you’ll be close. (Full disclosure: Khachapuri is technically a Georgian invention, but I ate tons of the stuff in Russia, so let’s just pretend that it’s actually Russian food.)
I probably ate about half my weight in vegetables, which probably isn’t a bad thing. (My grandfather used to eat tons of cabbage; whenever an American would question him about it, he would tap his lower abdomen and say “good stomach” with a big smile on his face.) So yeah, my stomach was quite “good” the next day. (I know that you really needed that image. You’re welcome!)
Since I was a good boy and ate several pounds of vegetables, I earned a trip to La Brioche, a Russian bakery that sells everything by the pound. Once again, Rimma and I went into “holy s**t, I haven’t seen that since I was a kid” mode, and ran around acting like fools and filling our plastic containers with cookies, cake, strudel, and chocolate. I think we terrified a pair of (non-Russian) tourists who asked the taciturn Russian cashier about the apple cake. The cashier didn’t have much to say, so I started babbling like an idiot, explaining that the apple cake was barely sweetened, and that the crust was made from sour cream, and that I grew up on the stuff. Rimma and I both started rambling on and on about the fresh
pastry filled with poppy seeds, and about the fruit-filled cookies, and about the difference between Russian apple cake and apple strudel.
Eventually, we realized that talking was a wasteful use of our mouths, so we abandoned the store and returned to the serious business of stuffing our faces with as many different baked goods as our “good stomachs” could handle.
1007 Brighton Beach Ave., Brooklyn
Subway: Brighton Beach (Q, B trains)
Bakery La Brioche
1073 Brighton Beach Ave., Brooklyn
Subway: Brighton Beach (Q, B trains)