Day Trips to Russia and Fine Dining by the Sea
Exploring Little Odessa where time is irrelevant and pickled watermelon is on the menu.
The days pass by quickly in the city.
January passed my attention’s baton off to February before I’d even finished sending out Christmas cards. Instead of oxygen, it’s nicotine energy passing through your lungs like secondhand smoke on every bustling street.
Everyone is in a hurry to get somewhere important, and even if you are not, you feel like you are.
As February came summersaulting into her baton-hand-off with March, Mom and I found ourselves removed from time, and completely overtaken by the indisputable charm of Brooklyn’s Little Odessa by the sea.
Like the best of all adventures, Mom and I stumbled upon Little Odessa, named after the Ukrainian city that was once part of Imperial Russia, by accident. En route to Coney Island, weekend construction left us stranded two miles from our destination.
March was on the horizon, however, and her promise of Spring and the warm sunshine that clung to her presence like sweet perfume convinced us to keep walking on rather than catching a train back toward the city.
We walked past a impromptu garage selling tires, with patrons that spoke to the owners in gleeful Spanish streams, and later passed an Italian neighborhood littered with pizzerias and delis. The graffiti clothed cement walls that lined our voyage also shifted from Spanish to Italian as we walked, but before long the spray-paint letters weren’t even from the latin alphabet.
In a matter of a few blocks, we found ourselves in the heart of New York’s very own Russia, only a stone’s -throw away from Coney Island. Women in fur coats with honey-colored hair and long skirts swayed to the songs of waves lapping the shore and balalaika strumming. The smell of buttery baklava pastries and sea salt rested over the gemlike produce of the street-markets. Ornate Russian nesting dolls and fine china rimmed the storefronts.
In an attempt to escape the horrors of fascism and Nazism in Europe in the thirties, waves of Jewish immigrants settled in what is now known as Little Odessa, adding another layer of culture to New York City’s diverse repitore.
Today, as an article by Business Insider so eloquently puts it, the Little Odessa culture thrives in its odd shops, food emporiums serving traditional delicacies, and colorful, Russian-speaking characters.
In other words, there is no better place to find yourself at lunchtime.
At 1:37 on February’s very last Saturday, Mom and I strolled out of a Russian supermarket with two double-bagged treasure troves of treats.
While dining on the beach was a valid option, the people-watching was much better from the street. And us Miles gals are quite partial to our people-watching.
We spread our plastic-encased picnic over a pair of pallets residing alongside a pair of dumpsters that both blocked the wind and attracted the sunshine (and perhaps a rodent or four). Little old men with arched noses bickered in Russian, mothers extended brightly-packaged chocolates to their children, and the N Train overhead provided musical entrainment as we spread out or loot of curious Russian finds.
Wine-colored beef tongue marinated in celery and dill, tightly packaged cabbage rolls, crab-meat and cheese stuffed salmon, duck loaf with dried figs, black pepper crepe cake, rabbit pie, hot pink Borscht, and pickled watermelon for dessert.
We stabbed at our tiny samples with plastic spoons given by a girl named Ulga at the cash register, trying to imagine what each dish would be like prepared fresh in the motherland.
The rabbit pie tasted like forest, sweet with little hints of mushrooms and thyme growing by a stream. It’s pastry flaked between your teeth in layers that hummed with butter, leaving behind a soft, yet chewy dough that held the flavors of the meat inside.
Another favorite was the beef tongue, which was tender and melted into a soft velvety cream the moment it hit the mouth. It reminded me of the tongue sandwiches my grandmother used to pack us all for long cattle drives on the Oregon desert.
I was most reluctant to share the Borscht, picking out the sweet beets, candied with carrots and dill, for myself and leaving the potatoes, as moist and creamy as they were, behind for Mom’s half.
Classic Ukrainian Borscht:
Recipe from Natasha's Kitchen
2 large or 3 medium beets, thoroughly washed
2 large or 3 medium potatoes, sliced into bite-sized pieces
4 Tbsp of cooking oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 carrots, grated
1/2 head of cabbage, thinly chopped (see picture)
1 can kidney beans with their juice
2 bay leaves
10 cups water
6 cups chicken broth
5 Tbsp ketchup
4 Tbsp lemon juice
1/4 tsp freshly ground pepper
1 Tbsp chopped dill
I dove in for another slurp of Borscht while she reached for the cabbage roll.
“Ah man, I just stuck my finger in your gum,” I said, pointing to the little white glob stuck on the bottom of her soup canister.
“I wasn’t chewing gum,” Mom said. We looked at each other, blinking a few times before she started laughing. “That’s what you get for being greedy.”
The sun bounced off a shimmering white lugey on the pavement below us, and a passed-out foot twitched from the other side of the non-recycling dumpster.
So, the ambiance wasn’t quite what we had experienced a few months ago at the Russian Tea Room in Midtown, with multiple sterling silver forks and fine linen tablecloths, but the food was better, the authenticity appealing, and we were free to “be” in a way that only happens when either March or Coney Island are on the horizon.
I don’t know how long we sat, crosslegged on our borrowed pallets in Little Odessa, with the sun on our smiles and salt in our hair, but it doesn’t matter. Because on that last Saturday of February, we were removed from the hustle and bustle of time and under full intoxication of knowing that both the Coney Wonder Wheel and sweet Spring were in sight.