If ever there was a moment for Russian cuisine to ascend into American mainstream culture, this is it. The curing and pickling crazes from recent years have primed our palates for northern Eurasian flavors. Affordable caviar and electric orange salmon roe are now ubiquitous garnishes on restaurant plates. And who doesn't want to spend a few happy moments with a bowl of silken dumplings?
Morales and her husband, Israel, welcome guests to the Russian table with persuasive hospitality. Bonnie (her maiden name is Frumkin) grew up outside of Chicago, eating variations of the Belarusian foods she now prepares at Kachka. She met Israel at Chicago's Tru, where he helped lead the front-of-house team to its Outstanding Service Award win from the James Beard Foundation in 2007. Bonnie had trained at the Culinary Institute of America but didn't give her mother's Belarusian dishes much professional consideration until Israel became smitten with them. The couple moved to Portland in part to be closer to Bonnie's brother, and they'd been planning to open Russian restaurant since they arrived.
Given the close ties, it doesn't surprise how familial the dining room feels. Bonnie's mother helped pick out the brownish diamond-patterned wallpaper to match her childhood home near Minsk. Notice the cuckoo clock, a must-have ornament in mid-century USSR households. Soviet propaganda posters hang in a montage, as do decorative green window shutters meant to evoke a country house. (To understand how these seemingly disparate objects meld into a cohesive culture of Russian nostalgia, read Anya Von Bremzen's Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking.)
The setting certainly kindles a thirst for vodka. Israel Morales enables with a list of nearly 70 fire waters. I've been so swept up into our cocktail renaissance, with its emphasis on gins and darker spirits, that it was fascinating to home in vodka's subtleties and sip a premium brand like Slovenia, which seesawed from smoky to sweet to medicinal and back again. And the infused vodkas — in flavors like horseradish, tarragon, and cucumber-lime — are dangerously easy to swig. A goodly number of taxi drivers in Portland are Russian; they'll be understanding.
Drinking is inseparable from eating in these circles. Eight varieties of caviar run the gamut from $12 for house-cured king salmon roe to $225 for Tsar Nicoulai Golden Reserve, with other prices spread evenly between. It's worth ordering whichever one fits your budget for the pleasure of whole presentation, which includes cumulus-light blini, slices of challah, and tidy rows of egg and minced chive. I can vouch for the $55 white sturgeon option, which I could have shoveled in by the tablespoonful. A selection of fish poses trout, mackerel, Chinook salmon in various smoked and cured guises; gently sweet pumpernickel bread on the platter helps subdue pungent cod liver pashtet (pâté). Ready to go all in? Order the cholodetz, a molded terrine of jellied beef shank and veal feet with a sinus-jangling swipe of mustard alongside. Once I moved past the aspic-like bounciness, it grew on me. A glug of horseradish vodka helped.
Siberian pelmeni — six-sided dumplings stuffed with beef, veal, pork, and onion and steamed — brought the whole meal into soothing focus. The optional "fancy broth" for the dumplings (a must) is made from simmering collagen-rich cuts of meat. It blended with a healthy dollop of smetana (a delicate sour cream) into a savory custard that enveloped the pelmeni while echoing their beefy brawn. The stroganoff achieved a similar harmony of meat and soured cream, and the use of beef tongue rescued the dish from its purgatory as a kitchen set piece on Mad Men. Chicken Kiev, another last-century American dinner party relic, made of a breaded cutlet folded around butter and fried, resembled a Nerf football in size and density. Its heaviness made me miss the light touch employed in the rest of the dishes.
For dessert, I gladly returned to dumplings: vareniki, a Ukrainian specialty filled with cherries, pan-fried, and gilded with more smetana. Morales uses Oregon sour cherries in the recipe, the only overt reference to local foods on the menu. Not that she needs to add others. Portland clearly supports restaurants that mine under-explored jewels among global cuisines, and the city has a new diamond in Kachka.
Restaurant Editor Bill Addison is traveling to chronicle what's happening in America's dining scene and to formulate his list of the essential 38 restaurants in America. Follow his progress in this travelogue/review series, The Road to the 38, and check back at the end of the year to find out which restaurants made the cut.
Photos: Bill Addison