Coming Attractions: Gourmanoff

Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach neighborhood, affectionately known as Little Odessa, is a gastronomic jubilee of Russian, Ukrainian, Georgian, and other Former Soviet Union culinary delights with a touch of Turkish and a wee bit of Uighur blended in for good measure. (As a matter of fact, if memory serves, there had been a market there years ago that bore the name “Gastronom Jubilee”.)

On a recent food tour along Brighton Beach Avenue, the main drag and principle eatery artery of the community, my band of adventurous epicures was a little surprised when we stopped at the venue depicted here. Cultural arenas don’t usually make it into the itineraries of my ethnojunkets – we’re more about global food than local sightseeing – so why have we stopped at what appeared to be a theater, replete with ticket booth, artificial frondescence, and statuary? Posters and digital videos heralding forthcoming entertainment in diverse variety from movies and stage shows to dance and musical performances and even a “World Famous Comedy Pet Show” confirmed the nature of the site. And indeed, Master Theater, formerly the Millennium, is just upstairs and is home to all of the above. But our spotlight was on Russian food, so it was the orchestra level that would be our focus that day.

Deftly sidestepping the “if music be the food of love” play on words (see what I did there?), I escorted my curious group into the capacious expanse now known as Gourmanoff, a dazzling upscale supermarket brimming with smoked fish and meats, cheeses, organic produce, baked goods, and a myriad of Russian products along with an extensive array of tempting prepared food.

Since everyone seemed so impressed with this theatrical display of culinary opulence, I thought I’d share a bit of the spectacle with you – sort of a Sneak Preview (if I may extend the cinema metaphor) of my Brighton Beach ethnojunkets. Shown here are just a few of the tidbits I picked up from the dumpling-ish section in the prepared food bar. At the top, hailing from Azerbaijan, there’s kutaby, a tortilla-like pancake filled with ground lamb and luscious seasonings, folded in half and griddled, and an object of universal culinary lust for anyone whose lips have ever caressed it. Just below that are Russian pelmeni and Ukrainian vareniki to the left, delicious dumplings that are probably familiar to you. (And if they’re not, you need to sign up for this ethnojunket!) Below those are Uzbek manti, lamb on the left (the best I’ve ever tasted, and that’s saying something since my bathroom scale and I lost track years ago of just how many I’ve consumed) and pumpkin on the right.

And then there’s that rolled up thing just above the pumpkin manti. The sign said Russian sushi, but I wasn’t convinced; needless to say, I had to buy one. Here’s a photo of it unrolled and deconstructed. A blini (Russian crêpe) had been substituted for the nori (seaweed) wrapper that’s common in Japanese maki sushi; it was spread with cream cheese and filled with raw salmon, kani (imitation crabmeat), and cucumber skin. It was cute and a little cheeky, but not the tastiest of their offerings. (But no spoiler alert here because whenever I’ve visited, everything was incredibly fresh. <groan>)

We do hit other markets as well as we eat our way through Brighton Beach Avenue; some are similar to Gourmanoff (though not as ostentatious), but each has its own standouts that we sample along the way: the tongue salad at Brighton Bazaar is fantastic (don’t knock it till you’ve tried it) and their eggplant salads are not to be missed. Georgian breads from Berikoni are mind-blowingly delicious as well.

But this is intended to be a Coming Attraction, just a teaser about what you’ll experience along a Brighton Beach ethnojunket! When will the next one happen? Well, when the temperature in Brooklyn’s Little Odessa is more like Ukraine’s actual Odessa – a tourist destination with a subtropical climate – and less like Siberia! So to extend the movie metaphor one more time, think of this post as a cliffhanger – and my promise that when you join us, you’re guaranteed a happy ending!

 
 

Chechil – Smokey for Beer

Eight minutes. That was all the time I had before I was scheduled to meet my friend in Sunnyside for a nearby foodie event. The choice: I could simply neutralize this slice of time and wait outside the frenetic smack-in-the-middle-of-Queens-Boulevard subway entrance savoring the malodorous traffic fumes, or I could prowl around. But what could I ferret out in eight minutes?

Twenty seconds and half a block later I found Superior Market/Beer World. The store was bursting with craft beers from around the world — but that’s not the kind of thing I usually write about on these pages. A quick glance around the place and I realized I was on familiar Russian turf: some prepared foods, fresh baked goods, the usual suspects, and a lot of non-Russian products as well to satisfy their mixed clientele. With that cursory inspection and only a few minutes to spare, I found nothing special to tell you about, so I was about to leave empty handed. But something I had never seen before caught my eye as I passed the refrigerator case on my way to the door.

The vacuum packed pouch revealed what looked a bit like a bundle of short thin ropes about 4 inches in length. I picked my way through the Cyrillic text on the label. The first line was easy: СЫР – cheese. The second (hyphenated) line began with Чечил. I sounded it out: Chechil. I had no idea. Then the next word. I struggled with the Russian script: you think you’re seeing “cnazemmu” but what looks like a “c” sounds like “s”, what looks like an “n” is a “p”, “z” is “g”, “m” is “t” and that “u” is actually a lower case version of the letter that looks like a backwards N, so it must be – s, p, a, g, e, t, t, i? Really? But yes, that’s the second part of that line – spaghetti. (Well, it did look like spaghetti in sort of a dwarfed, tannish way.)
Chechil PackageChechil

Hurriedly, I bought a pack and plunged into my research as soon as I returned home. I pulled off a string; it came apart in shreds. Very smoky. Certainly salty. Almost aged mozzarella-ish but much drier. Rather chewy. Delicious. I wondered if it would melt: I peeled off another strip. Nope. Not in the microwave, at least. After only a couple of seconds in the belly of that magnetron beast, it became even drier and oddly bubbly in a freakish sort of way but nothing I would call melted. (Should have tried a more conventional approach. Well, there’s always next time.)
Chechil ShreddedChechil Bubble Burst

I hit the interwebs and discovered that I was enjoying Smoked Chechil Beer Snack. (The third line on the label means smoked.) Ah — this Russian cheese is destined to be savored with beer, the featured product of the eponymous Beer World. Its roots are in Armenia but it’s popular throughout Central Asia and Russia. Larger hunks of this cow’s milk pasta filata cheese (which is why it reminded me of mozzarella) are typically braided into a figure 8, this being a small snippet from one of those skeins.

So this Russian string cheese is described as “spaghetti” which is the diminutive plural of spago in Italian which means “string”.

And that ties it all together.
 
 
Found at Superior Market/Beer World
40-08 Queens Blvd.
Long Island City, NY