13 September 2008

Cheburek Hunting in Brooklyn: Russian Ravioli on Avenue U

The hunting party was an all-star MTBE cast, featuring former commenter McFly (husband in tow), sometimes contributor lizzie b, celebrated co-conspirator kamchatka friend and, of course, your faithful editor.

Mounting our two-pedaled steeds, this intrepid team headed out across Brooklyn in search of tasty chebureki, those fried, flaky, greasy, herbed, meaty patties of wonder, the virtues of which I have been extolling for the past three months since my return from Moscow. We left the quiet shores of Sunset Park and crossed through the flatlands of Dyker Heights, evenutally cycling down to Russian-Style Ravioli, an unassuming little diner nestled between Gravesend and Brighton Beach on Avenue U at East 8th Street.

At first sight, I had a feeling that this might be just the place for my fix. I mean, look at that sign.
Greeting our crew in Russian, the waiters—a team of a half-dozen young men dressed in bright lemon t-shirts—walked us to a table in the back. The joint’s décor comprised a mish-mash of nostalgic Soviet posters, cheap overstock restaurant furniture and a few framed prints of early twentieth-century Russian art—possibly Ilya Mashkov, though I can’t be trusted on the matter. The menu emphasized dumpling-esque fare—pelmeni, vareniki, manti, etc.—but being a contrarian crowd, we avoided the proffered house specialty. Instead, we ordered the eggplant salad, khachapuri, borscht, baked fish, and a plate of chebureki, all to be washed down with a pitcher of sickeningly sweet compote.

In retrospect, we made a mistake.

The khachapuri was essentially a thick slab of warm salty cheese encased in two thin layers of filo dough. The eggplant salad was coated in so much oil and mayonnaise that the delicate balance of brinjal bitterness, pomador pucker and spicy crunch was drowned out by the creeping sense that my arteries were closing. I skipped the borscht, though, for the record, lizzie b described it as “good, not great, you know, solid.”

But, hell, these items were all beside the point—I was looking for a reliable cheburek connection this side of the Atlantic. All other culinary sins could be forgiven.

Delivered last, our platter of fresh-fried goodness was greeted by wary stares. Could we really ingest more saturated fats and survive? I stiffened my resolve and took a swallow of compote to try to make room.
Biting into the warm patty, teeth and tongue struggled to recognize the item in my mouth. I was searching for the moist, crispy pastry surrounding savory morsels of meat with hints of sweet onion, pungent garlic and aromatic herbs--that little taste of heaven I used to find outside of Dmitrovskaya Station on my walk home every day. This stuff filling my pie hole was decidedly not that. The dough was too dry, as if it had sat out for a couple of days before it was fried. The meat filling was both too lean and too plain. If I had to guess, I’d say it was unseasoned, overcooked ground turkey, as unlikely as that choice of meat may be in a Russian kitchen. How lost were these Russians that they couldn't even get farsh right?! I wanted to cry.

To drown my sorrows, I reached across the table and finished off lizzie b’s beer. Then I headed to the toilet before we settled up and ventured back out into the wilds of Brooklyn. There I was greeted by suddenly familiar stern admonishments over the toilet, by the sink and on the door.
Reading these signs was the most evocative Russian experience I had that day on Avenue U. And it left me with a thin sliver of hope that somewhere in Brooklyn I might still, someday, find authentic cheburek magic.

The hunter endures.


MasterGote said...

Oh man, how sunny it looks over there! Also, this makes me wonder, where's the Russian version of passive aggressive notes dot com?

As for the cheburek hunt, to each his own. But I know what I'm getting you as a house-guest present in October...

Drew said...

You hit the target in noting that the cheburek seasonings were off. But after a bike ride on a hot day, I will defend the compote...sweet as it should be! And how much luck do you think they have with that sign in the bathroom? The English translation suggests to me that they're fighting a battle that can't be won.

Jeff said...

Ugh. Disappointing. Don't give up the hunt!

Though not a borscht, I made a terric beet vichyssoise a week or two ago. I'll be posting the recipe soon.

Anonymous said...

As a cook (though, to my shame, a cheburek virgin) it seems to me the critical elements care (a) the filling recipe, (b) the dough recipe, and (c)--perhaps least fault-tolerant--the frying process. I know something about deep frying, which is that the oil needs to be clean--not the stuff that's been sitting in the fryer since lunch, reheated for the dinner rush--and at the right temperature, typically around 375° F. Greasiness is almost always a result of not heating the oil sufficiently.

I have a very accurate instant-read thermometer. Need I say more? Get me reasonable approximations of the filling you remember and the dough you prefer, and I promise chebureki till hell won't have it.

Desi Italiana said...

This is a cute post, it reminds me of the time I was on the hunt for good mozzarella in Chicago.

Here are the traumatizing details. Mind you, I am getting emotional, so please bear with the incoherence of my comment....

It happened in Chicago. 2005.

When I returned to the US from Italy, I realized I had to forego many things that I used to eat with relish in Italy, like mozzarella. I was always on the hunt for yummy mozzarella balls, but none appealed to me.

But then, I came across a deli near the university. There they were: large, glistening mozzarella balls, sitting tantalizingly behind the glass showcase. Images of mozzarella di bufala at the supermarket near my apt. in Bologna flashed before my eyes. This mozzarella was quite pricey, but one, I had been craving mozzarella for so long by now, and two, I always passed up good foods due to the restrictions of my student budget. So, I decided to treat myself and fork over the 8 bucks for one, large ball of mozzarella.

I ran home, all the while salivating. I pictured my friend Luigia, who used to always get Neopolitan mozzarella balls because she knew how much I loved them, cutting the ball in middle as milk oozed out. I couldn't wait.

I finally got to my apt, and I quickly threw my things aside, slipped out of my shoes, and ran into the kitchen. I hurriedly got out the tomatoes and washed them, grabbed olive oil, minced fresh basil, swiped the saltshaker, and a plate. I sliced the tomatoes and placed them in a circle, scattered the minced basil, drizzled olive oil, and sprinkled the whole plate with some salt. I placed the mozzarella right in the middle.

I impatiently seated myself at the table, and with a knife and fork, I cut a piece of the mozzarella. No milk exiting it, but that's ok. My mouth was watering. I placed the piece in my mouth, waiting to savor it with gusto.

It was the nastiest, rubbery, tasteless piece of shit I ever ate.

BusterPh.D.Candidate said...

Gote, You will have to start the site. I imagine it shan't be difficult to find material.

Drew, Nothing should be that sweet, and this is coming from a lover of Bengali snacks! I imagine diabetics going into shock just looking at those pitchers.

Jeff, I await details and that recipe.

rootless, I *will* keep you posted on my travel schedule so that you can have oil ready. And I completely agree on the problems of old oil. As for the filling and dough, I will scan the Caucasian/Central Asian cookbook I picked up in Moscow when I find it (somewhere in a box of sundries) and give details.

Finally, DI, I'm glad you find the details of my heart-breaking struggles "cute." I have to say that your mozzarella problem may be even worse than my cheburek one. If there were chebureki around every corner in Brooklyn, but most of them were terrible, I might just give up completely rather than taint my beautiful memories with scores of disgusting chebureki.