I really did try to find the right kind of restaurant to go to so that I could participate in this month’s Dine and Dish, a new food-blogging event now in its second installment. Dine and Dish is the brainchild of the lovely and talented Sarah at The Delicious Life. Sadly I missed the first month’s theme, which was aptly named Barfly. I know just what bar I would have eaten at, too.
This month the theme is Queen of Cuisine, and the task is to dine at and write about a restaurant with a woman chef. I’m a little behind on the NYC restaurant scene to be quite honest, since we don’t eat out with any real frequency. That may be why I just don’t know of a wide number of restaurants in NYC that have women chefs. There are some pricey ones. Then again, when does anyone actually know the chefs’ names, gender or anything else about them except when the restaurants are high-end? I could have done some research and called some of my fave middle-brow places to find out if the kitchens were headed by females, but time was lacking. I do know of Gabrielle Hamilton who owns and heads the kitchen at Prune. And I’ve actually been dying to try it. But it simply wasn’t in the cards this month.
So instead I’ve chosen to write about a place that still exists, but has been scarily reconfigured. I’m going to tell the tale of its former glory. Good, filling, inexpensive food that cannot be duplicated was once served there, on Second Avenue at East 7th Street, at the Kiev. Once upon a time, New Yorkers knew that at any hour of the day or night, you could get buttery potato or cheese pierogi topped with perfect caramel-bronze fried onions and a little dish of sour cream. You could order foot-long cylindrical blintzes: delicate crepes fried to a crisply hot exterior, oozing creamy, vanilla-scented pot cheese from within. There was sour cream with those too, or applesauce. Or both. Or you could have both with crunchy potato pancakes instead. Then again, you might (if you had been so lucky as to go to the old Kiev) have requested one of the combination platters that included two or more of the “Kiev specialties”. If you didn’t want those, you could always have soup – chicken soup or wonderful daily specials, borscht and pea soup and white bean with leeks and dill – each one a meal in itself, especially since the brimming bowl of soup arrived with two thick slices of homemade, eggy, golden challah bread and little cups of butter and jam. Almost all dishes at the Kiev came with that challah – and consider this in light of the fact that most of the dishes I’ve named and will name in this post were under five dollars, and all of them were well under ten. You could buy a huge, triple-humpbacked loaf of that challah to take home with you too, for just a few dollars. I can’t even enumerate all the wonderful things at the old Kiev – the huge dish of nutty buckwheat kasha with meltingly tender beef chunks and mushroom gravy, the best babka I’ve ever eaten, or maybe eggs and kielbasa served with kasha instead of home-fries, if you so desired. If for some reason you or perhaps your companion didn’t want Russian food, you could have anything you might have ordered in any coffee shop in America – a burger, a grilled cheese, an omelette; iced tea or a big thick milkshake. But I went there, at least once a week for several years, for the Eastern European specialties.
They called her Mama. Who even knows what her real name was? Occasionally you could catch a glimpse of her through the window that connected the front counter and cash register with the kitchen. She was a stocky Eastern European lady with rosy cheeks from spending her days over the big stove – and usually she was a blur of motion. “Mama!” the waitresses, blond and dark pony-tailed, sneakered girls from the Ukraine and Georgia and Belarus sang out. “One order potato pierogi boiled, a pierogi-blintz combo and a bowl borscht, quick quick!” “Mama! Where’s my takeout for the front?” Sergei the counterman would cry. All the countermen seemed to be named Sergei. Sometimes they called out the order in Russian, and I couldn’t catch the words – but the cry of “Mama!” was always the same.
Maybe the names were coded. Maybe all the countermen were Sergei; maybe the waitresses had rotating sobriquets of Masha and Natalya and Tanya. There had to have been several cooks, since the restaurant never closed; it seems they were all simply known as “Mama”, perhaps an honorific much like “chef” in other restaurants. I don’t know, and I can’t ask, because (as Pastor Niedermeier would say) there’s no-one left to ask. The old Kiev is no longer. And whither Mama? Until fairly recently, women were "cooks" and men were "chefs"; how many talented women have cooked us all wonderful restaurant meals, unnoticed and unsung?
Slowly the Kiev changed. Many of us didn’t like it when they remodeled, and took out the middle room and the old back room, where you walked up a short flight of stairs to a long narrow space with more tables. But at least the food stayed the same, more or less. Then one day, when I hadn’t been there for many months, I walked in and the counter was gone. In its place was a bar. How strange, I thought. I was comforted, however, by the sight of a man eating a double order of pierogi at a nearby table. Time passed again, and I had long ago stopped visiting the Kiev with any regularity. One night, out late in the East Village, I thought I might stop and get some of my old favorites to take home. I could pick up a loaf of challah for my father, perhaps.
That’s the only thing that remained the same. You can still buy the challah, and I like to think that there is a “Mama” out there somewhere who makes it. The restaurant has a new name. It’s called “Kiev East”. It’s not open 24 hours. The banged up old wooden tables and chairs are gone, and in their place is a dark blue lighting scheme that tries for romantic or mysterious or something that escapes me altogether, and a décor that simply tries too hard. Worst of all, the big old menu is gone. In its place is someone’s fantasy of a Eurotrashed Eastern European/Asian fusion menu. They now have seafood pierogis, and vegetable “potato” pancakes, made with parsnips and red peppers, served with gingered sour cream. They might be very good. I don’t know. But I don’t want them. Nor do I want a “Beijing”catfish sandwich. “Ukraisian Wings”? Nyet.
That last time I went, they had just a few of the old specialties on the menu. For old times’ sake, I ordered my favorite boiled potato pierogi to go. I received an order half the size for twice the price – no sweet browned onions, no sour cream. And they were simply terrible. Mama didn’t make these. Nobody’s mama made these. These came out of a freezer compartment somewhere, filled with barely reconstituted mashed potatoes. As I threw the aluminum plate of sad dumplings in the trash, I could have cried for my own hunger. It was not so much physical, although I was hungry. There was nothing else I could make or eat at that moment, because my hunger was for the pierogi from the old Kiev.
While I was writing this, I looked at the Kiev East's online menu, and at voluntary customer reviews from several online venues. All the reviews have a suspicious similarity of tone. They all seem to be touting the idea that Kiev East is just like or even better than the old Kiev, because now it’s swank and you can take your date there. Arrgh. They do, however, seem to have recently restored a number of the old menu items. There are blintzes (although in noxious flavors just like the pierogi), and there’s kasha. Perhaps, one day when I’m in the neighborhood, I’ll pick up some of that good challah. Maybe I’ll even try an order of blintzes for takeout, on the off chance that someone is actually cooking somewhere in back.
In the meantime, if anyone knows where *Mama* is plying her vast culinary talents, please call, write, or send a telegram. If I can locate her, I’m there.