For a superpower, Russia sure has missed the train on culinary domination. It seems to me Putin is going about things all wrong. Instead of massing troops on borders, he should open a restaurant as good as Portland’s Kachka in every former satellite and NATO member nation alike. After tasting the Siberian pelmeni (pictured) I tried a few weeks ago at Kachka, I’m sure we’d all welcome a Russian invasion.
Six-week-old Kachka is Portland’s only Russian restaurant—strange for a city with one of the biggest Russian populations in America. Why isn’t there a vareniki vendor in every food-cart pod in Portland? Could it be that people are scared of things that are different, or smell of cooked cabbage? Maybe Americans are just too unsure about what Russian food really is, assuming it to be all borscht and vodka and sour cream.
There’s a Soviet throwback vibe here, with posters, Russian flags, and matryoshka dolls. A portrait of Vladimir Lenin watches you eat. A playlist of what I can only assume is Russian pop music has a kind of military thing going on (I assume it’s tongue in cheek). What isn't kitschy here is the food. Yes, there’s blini, and osetra caviar, and Baltic sprat. But there are other inspired Russian dishes that maybe you've never heard about.
We started off with cocktails. Straight vodka might be every Moscow resident’s first choice of beverage, but the appeal of a beet-infused gin cocktail called a Red Heering was too tempting to this Portlander (yeah, it tasted like alcoholic beet juice, but I liked it).
Up next were the appetizers or zakuski. After passing on the $160 caviar and roe sampler I decided on the eggplant pkhali rolls: sliced eggplant filled with a purée of walnuts, cilantro, and garlic. Like a statue of Stalin pulled down by a post-Soviet mob, it toppled any misconception I previously had about Russian food.
The fact that pelmeni aren’t as prevalent here as pierogis has to be some sort of crime demanding punishment. Kachka’s Siberian pelmeni are filled with the carnivorous troika of beef, pork, and veal, encased in thin, delicate dough, and served with sour cream. These little pockets of meat must have been what helped tear down the Iron Curtain: If they were anywhere near as good as Kachka’s, the rest of the world must have been clamoring to get their hands on some.
That’s kind of what makes Kachka unique. In a food town strangely void of Russian cuisine, Kachka makes Russian food accessible, in the way only Portland can. All you have to do is take a look at the restaurant's logo (above)—they even managed to put a bird on it.
Pelmeni photo by Flickr member garythefoodie, used with permission.
Brian Staffield has been interested in food ever since he was a child experimenting in the kitchen. He received his Bachelor of Arts in English from Oregon State University, and continues his passion for food and writing at his blog, Cooking with B.S., and on CHOW.