Kachka is like a party at Mom's house—if your mom grew up near Minsk and had a weird thing for Lenin.
In a room decorated with both Soviet propaganda posters and carved window frames from a grandmotherly dacha, meals begin with a succession of Russian drinking snacks—cured herring or mackerel, caviar on little buttered blini, tomato-cucumber salad accented with dill and a sour creme fraiche called smetana.
Always, always, you are heartily encouraged to lift your vodka—more than 50 are available—served elegantly by the gram, with infusions of beet, tarragon or a top-secret recipe made with horseradish. Husband-and-wife team Israel and Bonnie Morales have taken the seed of Bonnie's upbringing as a first-generation Belarusian immigrant to Chicago—back then, her name was Frumkin—and made it into one of Portland's most singular dining experiences.
Kachka, our 2014 Restaurant of the Year, achieves an unlikely and intoxicating balance. It is sentimentally nostalgic and winkingly modern, refined in palate but boisterously casual in spirit. Chef Bonnie Morales has brought years of culinary training to bear on meals that have been cooked at home by generations of babushkas.
The general conviviality at Kachka can make it seem familiar even on the first visit, by the time you get that first tarragon-flavored cocktail or 1.5-liter Russian bum beer. It's easy to forget just how rare and unlikely this restaurant really is.
Outside of certain neighborhoods of Chicago and Brooklyn, there are vanishingly few high-end Slavic restaurants in America—almost none. "It's amazing," says Israel, who runs the front of the house. "Bonnie can't be the only first-generation Russian immigrant that's a professional cook. People are trying to get away from what they grew up eating instead of embracing it.â
Bonnie insists, however, that they're not doing anything new. "There's this growing trend of first-generation cuisine," she says, "people who've made a profession of cooking the food of their parentsâFilipino, Japanese.â
But rarely are they from the former Soviet states. She says that before hiring one of her cooks, who is Ukrainian—making for a heartening political truce in Kachka's back of house—she'd never worked alongside another Slavic immigrant anywhere in the food industry.
"There's been no real restaurant culture in Russia until 10 or 20 years ago," Bonnie says. "If you go to a restaurant, it's always for an occasion. Your 25th or 30th birthday is like a wedding for Russians; it's a big deal. Russian restaurants in America will fill that niche. It'll be a banquet hall so you can get together a hundred of your closest friends, there's a band playing. The food is second to the environment. When have you ever had a good meal in a banquet hall?"
Even Bonnie didn't think much of her own home food while growing up. Five years ago, she and Israel were working together at high-modernist Moto in Chicago, where food is etched with robotic lasers, cooked with liquid nitrogen, or printed on edible paper. Pelmeni and golubtsi—the humble dumpling and cabbage roll—were just the stuff she grew up with. âEverybody has dishes they have at home,â she says.
And so five years ago, when she took her future husband, Israel, to eat at her Belarusian-born mother's house, she warned him it might be, in her words, "gross."
"I was maybe embarrassed," she says. "I think a lot of Russian immigrants feel that way." But Israel was sold at the first bite of herring. "He was in love with it," says Bonnie. "The camaraderie, the drinking culture. Through his lens, I changed my own idea around it.â
Chef Morales' "herring under a fur coat"—a stratified butte of a salad topped with the pretty pink of beets over layers of vegetables leading down to a base of herring—is on the one hand simple coffee-table fare for a Russian block party. But it is also a feat of architecture and a tour of textures. Even the humblest items on Kachka's menu are ennobled through attention. The pickled green tomatoes that Morales grew up making with her mother in vast batches are every bit as subtle and rewarding as the caviar Kachka serves with butter on blintzes, or the refreshing cold beet soup served with transcendentally savory pieces of cured mackerel—just one of a host of cured fish bites available.
But the "fancy broth" served on the meat-filled pelmeni is Morales' own invention. She discovered its first ingredient when she stopped her mother from throwing out a pot of broth left over from making head cheese. Nothing in Kachka's kitchen is allowed to go to waste, so she mixes that broth with jus from the 14-hour confited beef tongue Morales uses for her rich homestyle stroganoff (made American-style, with noodles), and from the veal terrine for her traditional cholodetz beef-shank appetizer. The result is a richness difficult to describe—as complex and as delicate as anything dreamed of in France or Italy.
In the absence of a long Russian restaurant tradition, the pair have constructed the loose, casually intimate experience of Kachka almost from scratch—the same way they built much of the restaurant themselves, assembling it from odd bits of the past. Israel and Bonnie built the moldings, and hammered the zinc bar top themselves—aside from a professional emergency fix they had to call in for one of the corners after a botched solder. The restaurant's cuckoo clock, a hallmark of 1970s Russia, came from a family friend in Beaverton. The scattered knickknacks, paddles and plates behind the bar were brought by Bonnie's family from the old country—items no one was using but no one could bear to throw away. Bonnie asked her mother to choose wallpaper that looked just like the walls in her old house in the little town of Barysaw, just outside Minsk in Belarus.
Kachka is, in part, an ode to family memory. In preparation to open their restaurant, the Moraleses traveled last summer to St. Petersburg and Minsk to research how modern Russians eat—a trip that also took them to Bonnie's birth home, where she received strawberries from the garden of an old woman who still remembered her mother. "We got to see the interior of the house," says Bonnie. "But it was really great to physically see those interiors and match those upâalso for personal edification.â
But they discovered the old Soviet things in high demand. The youth of a modern and chaotic Russia—much like Bonnie herself—has found itself wistful for a Russian Soviet life they never knew. "They didn't have that negative association," she says. "It's kind of like how the children of Russian immigrants remember it here. I only have family associations, the funny stories of my parents from when they were there. I have this sense, somehow, I missed out."
The restaurant is devoted to this nostalgia, the richness of a past that can live again only in stories—told always with vodka, and always over a meal.
Kachka, 720 SE Grand Ave., 235-0059, kachkapdx.com. 4 pm-midnight daily. $$-$$$.