You don?t have to be Russian to feel welcome at this Northeast spot
Rita Karakozov wasn't kidding. Then again, the Ukrainian Jewish singer and her daughter Sveta, at the keyboard, were partly responsible for the revelry at Caf? Odessa.
Dressed in black, with a giant silver belt buckle and a rhinestone-spangled shirt studded with "Diva" across her chest, Karakozov sang Russian tunes that pulled diners from their chairs, whirling across the tiny dance floor in a blur of churning feet.
Men with Popeye arms and silk print shirts dipped women in fuzzy sweaters over their knees. Zaftig aunts grabbed blushing girls with braids and spun them beneath the disco ball. Even my guests and I rose to boogie when Sveta belted "I Will Survive" to welcome us, even though we were strangers.
There was a vodka-soaked banquet to work off: flaky potato piroshki, blini with salmon caviar, spicy roasted eggplant, buttered chicken dumplings, smoked fish and meats, pickled watermelon, home fries with garlic and dill, beef and potato zharkoe stew, sweet beet salad with walnuts and garlic.
And the main courses hadn't even arrived. Platters piled with chicken Kiev and swordlike skewers of grilled beef and lamb kebabs pushed even my pro appetite to the brink of its capacity.
When I first stumbled across Caf? Odessa on Bustleton Avenue in the fall, it was calm and petite, a homey, purple-painted respite from the blaring banquet-hall clubs that dominate Russian nightlife in the Northeast. I'd been to some of them, and it was like being present but uninvited at three simultaneous bar mitzvahs.
The 60-seat Odessa, on the other hand, was serene the first day I entered the modest strip-mall storefront. I interrupted two aproned women quietly playing cards and smoking in the corner, and they promptly whipped up a feast I've yet to forget.
Pickled shiitake and oyster mushrooms. Thinly sliced beef tongue glazed with garlicky mayonnaise. Wide soup bowls filled with solyanka (a smoked-meat soup, tart with lemon and dill) and Ukrainian borscht, its rich meat broth sweet and tangy with beet-stained cabbage and herbs. Mounds of Siberian pelmeni meat dumplings tossed in butter and vinegar, then dolloped with sour cream. Tender lamb chops marinated in Georgian seasonings tinged with cumin and cilantro.
The multi-ethnic cooking is a reflection of the diversity in owner Gala Vergules' kitchen ? Russian, Ukrainian, Georgian, Uzbek and Jewish, a stew of distinct flavors that mingled in the Soviet empire.
They coexist today in Northeast Philadelphia, where nearly 38,000 Russian speakers immigrated in the last decade, opening authentic food stores and banquet halls rarely frequented by mainstream Philadelphians. But Western-style restaurants are still a rarity among Russian-speakers. Most would rather eat at home. Going out means a party. Thus the disco ball, even in this unassuming cafe.
I have had some meals at cash-only, BYOV(odka) Caf? Odessa at which I ordered from a printed menu, and an unpredictable version of this dining experience still exists. But Vergules, who owns the restaurant with her daughter, Nonna Rimar, has inevitably turned her focus to the weekend banquet business, with elaborate menus that vary daily and run $30 to $35 per person. Large parties aren't required (four will do), but I'd always call in advance to reserve a table, discuss the potential menu, and request some special items.
At the top of my list is the whole duck, or "utka" ($25), roasted with whole apples so soft you can spread them like fruit butter across the succulent meat. Vergules' lamb plov, or pilaf, a triumphant tribute to her childhood in Uzbekistan, is another pre-order must. Slowly cooked in a special wok-shaped kazan pot, it emerges as an enormous mountain of rice studded with tender lamb cubes, moist and fragrant with lamb juice and whole cumin seeds. A head of roasted garlic sits atop the peak like a rose.
There were dishes I didn't love. The chicken Kiev was dry, especially when the restaurant was busy. The beef Stroganoff was tough. And there were authentic flavors for which I've yet to acquire a taste: the salty smoked fish and red caviar, for example, and those bony little sprats.
Everything else was a delight, both for me and for my Russian-speaking guests. (One of these can't hurt, though most of the friendly staff speaks English.)
The soups were restorative, whether a familiar mushroom barley or the exotic Georgian kharcho, a spicy beef-rice soup tinted golden with marigold and fenugreek. Produce of every sort was pickled: cucumbers, mushrooms, melons, tomatoes, lettuce wedges. Stuffed cabbage was filled simply with beef and rice, then ladled with tomato sauce softened with sour cream. And when carp is sweet (from spring through fall), homemade gefilte fish makes an appearance, ribboned with carrots and onions and worlds better than the store-bought variety.
Vareniki dumplings stuffed with meat or mashed potatoes come buried under caramelized onions. Sometimes there are even vareniki for dessert, filled with sour cherries and sauced with blueberry syrup.
And there are other homemade sweets: pineapple-cheese blintzes, cream puffs, chocolate napoleons, and Vergules' exceptional strudel, dense with walnuts and raisins and lively with citrus zest.
As I managed to nibble a final sugary crumb, the music shifted into a fiery jig as two Georgian women appeared from the kitchen, still wearing aprons. They circled the cafe in a feverish dance, clenching knives between their teeth, limboing to the ground, and stomping with such joyous abandon that it was impossible not to be re-energized.
I would need it. Some of these banquets can last into the early morning. But I was already headed down I-95 at 11 p.m. As Center City's skyscrapers rose into view, I felt the letdown of a traveler ending an intriguing foreign journey. The good news was, I'd never really left home.
Craig LaBan's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.