By Frank Sabatini Jr.
It’s been a while since a meal made me jump into the air with such excitement, especially from a restaurant that isn’t awash in hipster hype or flaunting some multi-million-dollar theme.
We’re talking about an ultra-homey Ukrainian joint called The Village House Kalina. It’s squeezed between a 7-Eleven and a taco shop in a small, unglamorous strip plaza — exactly the kind of setting in which you find such occasional gems.
So what exactly is Ukrainian cuisine?
As summarized by Alexander Bazar, whose wife Tanya Makarova does the cooking, it’s a confluence of Russian, Georgian and Polish foods that have resulted over the years in recipes specific to the Ukraine, such as borscht soup.
Here, you can order the beet pottage stocked traditionally with beef, potatoes, cabbage, onions and herbs. There’s also a vegetarian version without the meat. We slurped down the former and were awed by how smoothly the flavors of the cubed beef and softened veggies united in the obligatory presence of sour cream spooned on top. It was pure liquid comfort.
Many Ukrainian recipes call for judicious uses of mild vinegars, dill, parsley, onions, garlic and other savory ingredients that impart subtle tang to salads, dumplings and meats.
Such is the case with the wildly addicting table butter infused with garlic and herbs. Ditto for two outstanding salads — the Olivier combining chilled potatoes, peas and carrots, and an eggplant puree accented with walnuts and onions.
Butter took center stage in a generous order of vareniky dumplings, known commonly in the U.S. as pierogis. They’re filled with either a choice of potatoes and very mild farmer’s cheese or potatoes and onions. Both were exceptional and appealed to my half-Polish roots. Although those unfamiliar with Slavic food might find the frilly dumplings bland since salt, pepper and onions are used rather scantly in the dish.
If you’ve never encountered chicken Kiev before, this is the place to plunge into it. Bazar pointed out that in the Ukraine the dish shows up mostly in restaurants rather than in households because of its tricky maneuverings of rolling the breast filets around chunks of butter, and then sealing the chicken in leak-proof casings of eggs, flour and bread crumbs.
My only attempt at making the dish after having it on an overseas flight (when airlines used to serve hot, edible meals) resulted in a messy disaster. Here, the breading on the chicken was even and crispy, giving way to the coveted spurt of melted butter when cutting into it. The center cavity also included the bonus of fresh dill. We were in poultry heaven, greeted at the gates by dense mashed potatoes, cucumbers and tomatoes.
We proceeded to chicken stroganoff, available also with beef or no meat at all. Despite the absence of red meat, the dish was sinfully rich thanks to its bedding of buttered spiral noodles draped in creamy mushroom-onion gravy.
Bazar and Makarova grew up in the same apartment building in the Ukrainian town of Ternopil. They eventually moved to the U.S., got married in Las Vegas and settled in Spring Valley. They opened the restaurant more than six years ago and named it partly after the Ukraine’s national berry bush, the kalina.
The dining room is rustically cute, a recreation of a village farmhouse replete with parlor and kitchen décor from their homeland.
Missing from the scheme is vodka or booze of any kind since the restaurant doesn’t have a liquor license. But customers can tote in alcohol and consume it onsite free of charge.
Regardless if you visit for lunch or dinner, you’ll be remiss to leave without indulging in a pot of herbal tea and a slice of honey cake.
The cake is the recipe of Bazar’s aunt, a spongy multi-layered masterpiece boasting nuts, custard and sour cherries. The cherries appear also in warm syrup served alongside, for which you pour over the cake or into your tea, or both.
We declared to each other halfway through the meal that we’ll eagerly return in the near future to try some of the other entrees, such as the Russian-style ground steak cutlets and the Zharkoe beef stew with prunes. But the dessert was a finale that threw us into a greater state of urgency to come back, which will be much sooner than later.
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.