In Russia, to dine is to drink, and a restaurant is always a party. And in Portland, there's no food party quite like Kachka.
An ode to her own nostalgia for her parents' Soviet memories, chef Bonnie Morales' Southeast Grand Avenue Russian spot, nestled in the central east side's bar district, combines classic Continental food training with Russian vigor to create a dining experience unlike any other in the United States. Here, humble pelmeni dumplings become tender delicacies in "fancy broth" made with beef tongue and veal terrine, and even humbler cabbage-roll golubtsi are coaxed into a beyond-the-pale comfort food that lingers both in memory and on the palate.
The Soviet imperial past even resurfaces as a deeper-than-history beef shashlik bursting with plum barbecue sauce. A cold sorrel soup augmented by the briny shout of cured mackerel is simultaneously an exercise in subtlety and a workout for the senses. With a rich clay-pot rabbit doubling down on umami with porcini mushrooms and tarted up with sour cherries, it's possible to have just as delicate and rich a dining experience here as at any French restaurant.
But in a busy hallway of an eatery designed like a Russian dacha and scored with the thumping beats and gravel-voiced howls of a Slavic soul party, Kachka is also fueled by more vodka than you could find anywhere within hundreds of miles, stocking potato tipples from Japan to Kaliningrad. That list is bolstered by a 12-deep menu of house infusions, from the heavenly comforts of horseradish or dill to exotic buckthorn berries and bracingly tannic beet fernet.
At happy hour, before 6 pm or especially after 10, those infusions drop to $9 for a little 100-milliliter flute that's the equivalent of three 1-ounce shots. It's vodka as tasting menu, propped up by a shotgun blast of drinking boards: a caviar plate, a heavenly pickle plate with tomatoes and watermelon, and Morales' own father's picks of Druzhba cheese, salami and what are maybe the brightest pickled cukes in Portland.
At once some of the city's finest dining and its liveliest vodka madhouse, Kachka will expand this year into an even bigger space on Southeast 11th Avenue, with an open-flame grill, deli and expanded menu. But the original house on Grand is still where you'll take a cue from Robbie Williams and party like a Russian.
Pro tip: Arrive just before 10 pm happy hour to avail yourself of the full menu, particularly that "Herring Under a Fur Coat" Russian seven-layer dip ($9), and a golubtsi cabbage roll ($17) or one of the shashliks ($21-$25). Then, avail yourself of $9 infused-vodka refills and low-priced drinking boards and dumplings.