For one of my 70th birthday presents, my dear son’s and their families gave me a gift certificate to an intriguing Russian restaurant in Portland, Oregon, called Kachka.
It has been on the Portland foodie scene for about a year. It features food from Russia and the former Soviet states, some humble and some fit for the Tzar himself. They use mostly organic ingredients and buy as many of their ingredients from local farmers as possible. The recipes for the food that is served come from the owner’s, Bonnie Morales, mother, Luba. They are multigenerational family recipes from the ‘old country’ for food that Bonnie used to think was ‘disgusting’ when she was a kid, and later realized was actually deliciously priceless.
My husband Paul and I made our reservation for a Saturday evening at 6:30. This is way too early to eat for the hip, urbane Portland crowd, who want to eat dinner no earlier than 9 PM, so we had no trouble getting a table for 2. A lot of the tables are set up for crowds of people coming in to share as many of the tasty Russian Zakuskis (akin to Tapas) as they can fit on every square inch of their tables.
Kachka also boasts of having over 60 different Vodkas from around the word – most from Russia. Their vodka listing reads like most restaurant’s wine lists. Plus, they also have fancy Ruski cocktails with names like the Pinko Commie Bastard, Siberian Express, and Red Clouds. Beers and wines from the Soviet bloc are also available. The vodka is served in either 30g, 60g, or 100g amounts. You can do the math. You want to be careful with this stuff, as although 30g of vodka doesn’t sound like much (about 1 oz), it stacks up pretty fast and then hits you like a hammer and sickle. I decided to be adventuresome, and a little reckless maybe, as a person doesn’t make it to 70 years old every day. So, I ordered a ‘Flight” which is three 30g pours, to either sip or shoot. Thank heavens I decided to sip!
I chose the flight called the Mother Russia, which consisted of Green Mark Vodka from Moscow, Hammer & Sickle from Moscow, and Imperia, from St. Petersburg. These were served in tiny shot glasses, icy-cold as the Siberian tundra. They tasted pretty much like, well, vodka, only with slightly herbal notes. I liked them, but I wasn’t sure I had the palate to really appreciate them like a true Russian would.
Here is one of the Zakuskis we ordered first. Zakuskis are small plates of a variety of items to taste – kind of like Tapas in Spain. There are cold Zakuskis and hot Zakuskies to choose from. This one is called a Fish Board (a cold Zakuski) and it consists of House-cured Back Cod, Beet-cured King Salmon, Scottish Mackerel, Cold-Smoked Capitan, and Cod-Liver pastet (like pate). There were 2 kinds of breads – dark crispy rye toast slices and soft pumpernickel slices. Tiny potato rounds sprinkled with dill were nestled in some smetana. The smoked fish selection was delicate and flavorful.
Along with this, we ordered an assorted pickle collection which had some incredible house made sauerkraut, cucumbers, pickled garlic scapes, peppers, and mushrooms. These were like nothing you’d buy in a jar in a market. The sauerkraut was especially incredible.
Accompanying our Zakuskies, Paul ordered a turkish red wine called Kalecik Karasi 2012 turasan. He liked it a lot and thought it was similar to a French Cote du Rhone.
Below is a photo of the assorted pickle selection.
The last Zakuski we ordered was an extraordinary item called “Herring Under a Fur Coat.” It was absolutely exquisite. It is a Russian version of a small 7-Layer Dip, but don’t let that put you off. The bottom layer is a soft, warm potato pancake layered with carrots, parsley aioli, finely-shredded beets, onions, beet-cured herring, and a finely chopped hard-cooked egg. A tiny sprig of fresh dill completed the presentation.
This combination of flavors was absolutely amazing. Who would have thought all those things mixed together could taste so incredible? I could just envision Yuri and Lara eating this in their better days in a grand, ornate banquet room at the Tzar’s palace.
A word about the restaurant itself. It is located in an older part of S.E. Portland on the East side of the Willamette River on SE Grand. It is laid out in a long narrow orientation front to back. There were incredibly high ceilings. It is decorated with an old-fashioned Soviet bloc decor with dulled wallpaper you might have seen in your old-world great grandmother’s house. Some gilt-framed mirrors hint at the opulence that was once the provence of Tzars, and are the only bright spots on the walls as they reflect the very low lighting. Here is a shot from our table-for-two against a long wall looking toward the front of the restaurant.
Then it was time for our main dishes to start coming along. We told our waiter (Miles) at the start that we were not in a hurry and didn’t want to get ‘slammed’ with everything showing up all at once. We wanted to linger over our selections so we could evaluate and enjoy all the new tastes and flavors. Meanwhile, I decided to order another flight of vodkas – different ones this time so we could try another 3 kinds, and another choice of wine for Paul. Fortunately, he was helping me out by also tasting my various vodkas. Paul ordered a Macedonian wine called Vranec 2011. He said it was very much like the Turkish Kalecik Karasi he had earlier. He liked them both equally.
This time, I decided to splurge and I ordered a Super Premium flight consisting of Snow Queen from Kazakhstan, Slovenia from Slovenia, and Jewel of Russia Classic from Moscow. Again, there were three 30g servings in freezing cold shot glasses. Refreshing, actually with stronger flavors than the Mother Russia flight from earlier. Nostrovia! Again!
Our main dishes arrived. Paul had ordered Golubtsi which were sweet and sour cabbage rolls stuffed with pork in a tomato-based sauce, topped with smetana – an Eastern-European sour cream, and fresh dill.
I ordered Rabbit in a Clay Pot, which is rabbit hindquarters braised in smetana with porcini mushrooms, sour cherries, whole garlic cloves, and draniki. (potato pancakes).
This was very flavorful, rich and creamy, perfect for a cold Winter’s night. I was amazed at how much tender meat there was on a rabbit’s hindquarters! It was more than I could finish, but our waiter boxed it up nicely for a perfect lunch the next day.
Here is a close-up of the cute clay pot my rabbit was served in. Very nice presentation.
Here’s my plate with the rabbit and the draniki with the smetana sauce.
In spite of our satiated state, we just HAD to order one of the Russian desserts offered. Sadly, they did not have a ‘Zakuski’ with a small taste of everything to try, so we were forced to each pick one. We planned to take a taste of each other’s so we could at least sample two of them. Paul ordered the Sour Cherry Vareniki – a Ukranian specialty of small Scrabble tile-size pillows of noodle dough, each individually stuffed with a sour cherry, pan-fried in butter and served with a cherry liqueur sauce. It was served with an extra dollop of whipped smetana on the top for good measure. Oh, my.
I ordered the Raspberries and Smetana which were macerated raspberries with whipped smetana over a tiny piece of vanilla cake. It was very delicious without being overly sweet in spite of what you might think.
Paul brought most of his Vareniki home with him, and he is having it with his lunch today.
At the end of our meal, our check was presented to us in a cute little metal box! How fun!
When you flipped open the little box, the check was folded over inside!
Many, many thanks to our loving family for such a wonderful gift that introduced us to an new and thoroughly enjoyable cuisine. I would go back again someday as we saw several things on the menu we would like to try in the future. Plus, there are now at least still 54 kinds of vodka we haven’t tried yet!
If you go:
720 SE Grand
Portland, OR 97214