Russia is for writers, a place of tawdry sentimentalism and deep irony. This flavors even the food. So it is no surprise that the new, Russian-inspired Kachka has a high-art reverence for nostalgia and kitsch. But in true Russian form, Kachka's love is reserved for mother and country.
On one wall hang propaganda flags from the homeland, while the opposite wall displays clapboarded windows straight out of fairy tales. The bill comes in a tin for Russian cigarettes favored by the father of one of the owners. Clichés are joyfully quoted, then offered an equally cheerful goose. It's some of the best fun you can have in a Portland restaurant, equal parts jolting novelty and cockle-warming familiarity.
The modern Russian dumpling is frozen-bagged bachelor-pad fare, the ramen of Yakutsk. But at Kachka, soft pelmeni and vareniki dumplings are elevated from minimart trash to menu showpiece. The sheets of dough are made from scratch, just as chef Bonnie Morales' grandma used to do, fussily tied around farmer's cheese, sour cherry or onion and meat. Add a "fancy broth" for $2 (made with gelatin, beef shank and tongue jus), and the beef-pork-veal Siberian pelmeni ($13) are like meatballs wrapped in clouds, comfort that melts into fond memory like a steamy flashback in Doctor Zhivago.
The traditional Russian spread of drinking appetizers—zakuski—make up most of the menu, with an entreaty to eat them with "vodka, or maybe vodka." More than 40 vodkas are served by the gram or in flights from standard to "most super premium." Infusions are available, from horseradish vodka to a wonderful beet Fernet Branca. Or get 100 grams (about 3.5 ounces) of lovely Russian Standard for a mere $12. Also $12 is a 1.5-liter plastic bottle of Zhiguljovskoje, the 40-ounce bum beer of Russia. Budim, my friend.
With vodka handled, the simplest ordering option is to get a $25-per-person machine-gun spread of eight or nine zakuski. But consider saving room and budget for entrees. Choose, for example, the vinagret ($6), a delightfully sweet-savory pickled-beet salad augmented with potato and sauerkraut. Culturally if not culinarily interesting is a highfalutin version of salo ($8) garnished with pickle and honey, essentially a charcuterie plate for fatback—the fat in a pig's hump—a backwoods delicacy often sliced off with a knife while on a frozen lake.
Fruits of the sea are a high point. Each meal should include the herring under a fur coat ($8), a stratified butte of a salad topped with the pretty pink of beets over layers of vegetables leading down to a base of herring. It's Russian coffee-table fare rendered jaw-gapingly tasty—your aunt's ambrosia salad as actual ambrosia.
The fish boards were up and down. A sweet beet cure, for example, overwhelmed a cut of chinook. But a house-smoked butterfish was transcendent on the tongue, and a seasonal sorrel soup can be ordered with mackerel that likewise stuns the senses ($8). Caviar is served Russian-style, with butter on bread, which brings salt and fat together in riotous concert. A trout caviar ($18) popped like wet flares in the mouth, on lovely mini-blini and a light challah.
But don't bypass the entrees, in particular a heart-rendingly tender, tangy golubtsi (pork-stuffed cabbage roll, $17), and a beef-tongue stroganoff with king oyster mushrooms ($17) served in a cognac sour-cream sauce. Both savory ingredients—tongue and mushroom—can be tough if not prepared properly, but both were tender and attained a richness of flavor.
Our waiter, prone perhaps to the Russian literary character himself, proclaimed that when he first tried the stroganoff, it was as if he'd been "injected with a disease, and the only cure was eating it as fast as I could—possibly with both hands." And this is the key to Kachka: Even something as down-home as stroganoff might inspire a Russian crime novel.
- Order this: Herring under a fur coat, mackerel and sorrel soup, Siberian pelmeni, stroganoff. Caviar if itâs romance.
- Best deal: Russian Standard vodka (100 grams, $12).
- Iâll pass: Beet-cured chinook.
EAT: Kachka, 720 SE Grand Ave., 235-0059, kachkapdx.com. 4 pm-midnight daily.