A La Russe
Borsch comes to Butterfly Town with Pagrovia Cafe.
Thursday, October 16, 2003
As soon as I heard that the Pagrovia Cafe served Russian food, I took out an atlas to locate the Russian region of Pagrovia to see what influences it might have on the meals served in this new restaurant. Luckily, before I started doing online searches to find this mysterious region, my Pagrovian friend Clark told me that "Pagrovia" is PG-speak for Pacific Grove.
With that issue out of the way, I invited another friend, Howard, to dinner. When we walked into the restaurant, we were greeted by a samovar at the door. Paintings of icons and St. Petersburg canals by chef and co-owner Vincenzo D''Amico lined the walls, and white linen tablecloths and fresh flowers awaited us at our table. I suspect that co-owner Valentina Rapisarda, a native of St. Petersburg, had a hand in the decorating, and I could easily imagine the early 20th-century Russian poet Anna Akhmatova alchemizing her unrequited loves into poems in this former diner.
But it''s not all about Russia at Pagrovia: The oversize menus offering a choice of Russian and Italian foods reflect D''Amico''s cooking apprenticeship under his Russian and Sicilian grandmothers.
While Howard and I decided what to order, we dipped fresh, warm slices of parmesan focaccia in balsamic vinegar and olive oil. Then we ordered our Russian banquet>: piroshki ($11) and Beef Stroganoff ($14) for Howard and borsch ($8) and barashka (lamb stew, $16) for me.
I love the crimson color that borsch gets from beets, its main ingredient. What I especially like about Pagrovia''s version is its savory flavor, as opposed to the sweet and tangy flavor the soup usually gets from sugar and lemon juice. Howard, whose paternal grandfather was a Russian Jew, said as he eyed the carrots, cabbage, potatoes, celery and mushroom in my soup, that he thought borsch was just made of beets. In fact, Moscovites traditionally make their borsch from beets, and serve it cold as a clear broth; we were eating the Ukrainian version. I liked the taste of the decorative dill served with the soup; if I were cooking, I would chop it up and sprinkle it on top to combine the flavors more easily.
The traditional accompaniment for borsch is beef, as the soup is based on a stock made from beef and ham bone (which is probably why Howard''s grandfather preferred the all-beet version.) I chose seafood as my accompaniment, because I can never pass up shrimp after suffering a seafood-deprived youth in the Midwest. However, I can tell you that the borsch was so good that it made the seafood superfluous.
Howard''s piroshki was a bit of a surprise. Where I grew up in Detroit, we used to call piroshki "Russian ravioli" because they were little half moon-shaped pasta pockets filled with either cabbage or beef and onion fillings. I was expecting Howard to get a pile of these with melted butter and parsley on top.
What he got was a piroshki with a college education. Mounded up like a sculpture with a potato pancake as the base was a cannoli-like crepe filled with chopped porcini mushrooms imported from Italy, sweet purple onions, and chopped hard boiled eggs held together with a cream sauce. Howard said he had never eaten such delicious mushrooms in his life and told me not to worry about food pedigrees when things tasted this good.
When it arrived, Howard''s Beef Stroganoff looked worthy of the man it was named after. Darra Goldstein relates in her A La Russe cookbook that while 19th-century Russians revered all things French, they secretly harbored a love for their own cuisine. Count Pavel Stroganoff, whose family had made a fortune developing land in Siberia, had an inventive French chef who appealed to his benefactor''s dual tastes by adding sour cream to a basic French mustard sauce. He added this sauce to tender, sauteed tenderloin strips. Pagrovia has improved on this basic recipe by adding chopped porcini mushrooms, and serving it with perfectly al dente egg noodles.
I liked Howard''s Beef Stroganoff better than my barashka. This dish comes with chunks of tender lamb, large slices of carrot, and celery in a tomato sauce, all served over mashed potatoes. I think adding a little salt to the sauce would have enhanced the flavor. A few renegade lumps in the mashed potatoes let me know that D''Amico mashes his potatoes by hand, but I wish he had used a little more butter and milk in their preparation.
While I was talking with D''Amico about how he used to feed 6,000 people a day as a chef on the USS Kitty Hawk, Howard ordered a slice of tiramisu ($6). I arrived back at the table in time to taste a forkful. The thick cream with just enough coffee and chocolate made the tiramisu seem so light and low cal...I know, keep dreaming.
Pagrovia Cafe becomes more informal at lunch and breakfast. Autumn fruit and plastic cloths cover the tables. No Russian dishes are available at lunch, so I ordered the Ocean Avenue Calamari Sandwich ($9). Chef D''Amico coats calamari steak in corn meal, fries it up and serves it on a focaccia bun with marinara sauce and melted mozzarella. I really liked this, but I am more attracted to the restaurant''s Russian specialties.
589 Lighthouse Ave., Pacific Grove
Open daily 7:30am-3pm; dinner Wed-Sun, 5-9pm.