If you’re ever wondering how I became so food-obsessed, head to Iowa and introduce yourself to my mother. She’s one hell of a great cook, and she can do some serious damage to a plate of cinnamon rolls, brownies, or apricot crisp. She’s the daughter of Russian (Cossack) and Ukrainian immigrants, and her Ukrainian mother was an absolute wizard in the kitchen. Some of my first food memories are of my grandmother’s amazing Ukrainian-style cole slaw and borscht; my Ukrainian Mommy loves nothing more than a plate of vareniki, Ukraine’s version of Russian pelmeni.
Here’s the problem: Ukrainian Mommy lives on a farm in Iowa, far from the nearest Ukrainian eatery. It’s been decades since her late mother prepared a feast of Ukrainian vareniki, and Ukrainian Grandma never really taught Ukrainian Mommy how to make the stuff. That’s a sad story.
Worst of all, poor Ukrainian Mommy has developed an allergy to gluten–and there’s no such thing as gluten-free vareniki. If she eats gluten, her face breaks out in red splotches. So Ukrainian Mommy hasn’t indulged in a truly great plate of Ukrainian comfort food since sometime in the 1980s. That’s an extra-sad story.
So as a belated Christmas gift, I bought Ukrainian Mommy a ticket to NYC, and dragged her to Brighton Beach to gorge ourselves silly… red splotches be damned. She giggled happily as we walked down the street—she hadn’t heard this much Russian since she was a kid. We also hauled my equally giggly Californian sister and my ludicrously hot naked fiancé with us.
We decided to end Ukrainian Mommy’s decades of vareniki deprivation at Oceanview Café, a nondescript diner that serves a typical Brighton Beach mix of pan-Soviet cuisines. The sprawling menu includes chebureks (arguably of Tatar, Turkish, or Tajik origins, depending on whose story you believe), khinkali (eaten primarily in Georgia and the Caucasus mountains), Baltica beer (from Russia) and vodka (happily consumed everywhere). But we knew that the place was Ukrainian from the huge sign above the kitchen, advertising four different flavors of vareniki.
Ukrainian Mommy was going to be very, very happy. Covered in red splotches, perhaps. But happy.
We started our meal with a phenomenal bowl of green borscht ($6), made from parsley, dill, spinach, onions, and a few soft flecks of egg. We then slurped some red borscht ($6), made from carrots, onions, beets, carrots, and a hit of garlic, all pan-fried together before being stewed in tomato juice and tons of salt. Both borschts were particularly wonderful when served with the Ukrainian rye bread that was brought to us by our particularly taciturn waiter. Ukrainian Mommy was happy. Californian Sister was giggly. The waiter was serious. My fiancé was still hot.
We also ordered a mixed platter of picked vegetables ($8.50), which contained some lovable Slavic standards: pickled cabbage, pickled cucumbers, and picked cherry tomatoes. Ukrainian Mommy loves real Ukrainian/Russian pickles, so she was happy. The dish also contained several big chunks of pickled watermelon. Ukrainian Mommy was slightly confused; she’d never seen pickled watermelon before. The rest of us loved the stuff—it had an oddly feisty sweetness mixed in with the half-sour pickle flavor.
And then we ordered the vareniki, which doesn’t usually sound all that mind-blowing—they’re small, round, ravioli-like creatures, stuffed with your choice of shredded beef, spiced cabbage, or farmer’s cheese ($6-$7 for a large bowl). Badly executed vareniki are the Slavic equivalent of Chef Boyardee ravioli, but great vareniki are amazing. Oceanview Café’s were in the amazing category, partly because of the copious amounts of butter and fried onions served atop the dumplings, and partly because they nailed the fillings; the stewed cabbage vareniki were our unanimous favorite.
And Ukrainian Mommy was absolutely ecstatic. I don’t think I’ve seen her so happy in a long, long time—probably not since her own wedding seven years ago. She wasn’t even this happy when I announced my engagement—I think she was too shocked that my lovely fiancé was gullible enough to marry me.
The best part? Ukrainian Mommy didn’t even break out in red gluten-allergy splotches. (Warning: vaguely shameless, unsolicited product endorsement coming next.) She took some enzyme pills called Gluten FREE (is it really necessary to put caps in the product name, guys?) from a (caps-loving) company called MRM, and nothing happened. No splotches, no sneezing fits. She just sat there and giggled happily.
So I’m now officially a fan of the miracle Gluten FREE pills. I’m an even bigger fan of the cabbage vareniki and pickled watermelon and Ukrainian beer served at Oceanview Café. And I’m thrilled with any restaurant that can make Mommy giggle happily for hours.
290 Brighton Beach Ave., Brooklyn
Subway: Brighton Beach (B, Q trains)