Back in college I went on a study abroad excursion to Sochi, Russia where their idea of “spicy food” is a red sauce that eerily resembles ketchup. Russian cuisine isn’t typically known for its sophisticated flavors or liberal use of spices, but what else would you expect from a country that was under repressive communist rule for nearly a century? On the study abroad trip we ate Russian food every single day for every meal for nearly a month, and unsurprisingly I grew a little tired of it after a while. Nevertheless, to this day I love the stuff and I feel I am a fairly credible source on the matter of authenticity.
Far, far away in the northernmost tip of Seattle is European Foods, a hole-in-the-wall Russian restaurant which also doubles as a cute little Eastern European foods grocer. There’s almost no way to know of this place, apart from word of mouth. My friend (who also happened to be my roommate on the study abroad trip) and I had heard about it through our college Russian professor years ago.
A modest menu in both Russian and English was posted out in front of the restaurant. We studied the menu for a few minutes before the attendant, a friendly middle-aged Ukrainian woman, came over to greet us. We broke out our rusty Russian from college to say hello and immediately the woman perked up and began speaking to us in Russian more fluidly. Naturally I froze a bit, having not used any Russian in nearly three years.
The attendant brought us a basket of bread after guiding us to our table in the dining area, which I can only describe as being “typically Eastern European.” There were mismatched decorations everywhere and lace embellishing the gawky floral tablecloth. We were the only ones in the restaurant and there was no music playing, nor was there anyone talking in the distance, which awkwardly made us feel obligated to speak quietly.
Those unfamiliar with Russian food and drink must be let in on the secret that is kvass, the Russian counterpart to Coca-Cola that I ordered for my beverage. The only way I can describe kvass to those who have never had it before is fermented and mildly reminiscent of cola, although with a slight alcohol content. It’s sold on every street corner in Sochi and it is much more delicious than cola. Taking just one sip brought back a flood of nostalgia that included walking around the subtropical Sochi streets on a hot summer day years back.
Above all, if there was one thing I had set out to do on this restaurant adventure, it was to eat a bowl of borscht – perhaps the most famous food of Russia. So as you do, my friend and I both ordered the borscht for our appetizers. Borscht is no joke; it sounds positively unappetizing, as two of the main ingredients are cabbage and bright red beets. But borscht should really be regarded as one of the simple pleasures of the food world; it’s the perfect comfort food and comes served with a dollop of sour cream which compliments its vinegar-y flavor and cabbage-y texture perfectly. My friend remarked several times after we had left the restaurant about how good the borscht was, if that serves as any credibility.
For the main course I ordered cabbage rolls, a classic dish that’s found in many different Eastern European cuisines. The cabbage rolls consisted of a mystery-meat-and-rice filling inside a big boiled cabbage leaf, and of course, a dollop of sour cream on the side (in case anyone had any doubts about whether Russians love their sour cream). The dish came with two of these rolls topped with a vinegar-y red tomato sauce. My only complaint about the cabbage rolls was that they were good enough that I could’ve easily eaten an additional two of them.
My friend offered me a bite of her entree, the vareniki, which can most accurately be described as Russian potato ravioli, minus the sauce. And as you likely guessed, it came with a side of sour cream. Vareniki is about as flavorful as potato-stuffed pasta pillows with no sauce could possibly be, but it was nonetheless very much a comfort food that we both wholeheartedly savored.
For dessert we ordered a huge slice of the Napoleon cake to share, which was layered with vanilla egg-yolk custard. It was tasty, but as someone who doesn’t have much of a sweet tooth, I wasn’t overly excited about it.
It’s tough to say whether our satisfaction with the food was due to the actual wonders of the Russian cuisine, or due to the fact that we were reveling in nostalgia from our study abroad trip throughout the entire experience. Either way, it’s probably safe to say that Russian food and its lack of spices and excitement isn’t for everyone.
European Foods is a quaint little spot to venture to for those who are already somewhat familiar with the Russian culture and language – the food was refreshingly authentic and not too pricey. But for those who have never had the chance to experience Russian culture, the quirkiness of the restaurant might be a tad bit off-putting.