Although it may seem odd, a trip to Brighton Beach on one of the coldest days of the year just seemed to make sense. New York apartments are notorious for being dry and overheated and I had been hunkered down in mine for weeks, resisting the cold months as fully as possible. I needed to surrender to winter, an act that does not come naturally to me or my Mediterranean blood. The Russian community that dominates Brighton Beach is well acquainted with the cold and know how to live well with it. From them I would take my cues.
Underneath the subway tracks, I pressed through the crowds of Sunday shoppers on Brighton Beach Avenue toward the boardwalk and the great, freezing Atlantic Ocean. I breathed in its promise, knowing its frigid response was not a rejection, just a “not yet.” Here on this stretch of the Brooklyn Riviera, elderly Russians dressed richly in furs huddled together against the green wall of the boardwalk.
Yet, the mood was distinctly solitary as few people spoke to each other. If I looked too closely, people would avert my gaze. When I picked up my camera, hands appeared and bodies picked themselves up and moved on. A casual smile or hello was met with a stern turning away. This was winter, people seemed to say, a time for quiet and solitude.
Though I had read up on food in Brighton Beach earlier that day, I was overwhelmed by the restaurants, markets and nightclubs along the Avenue. The Cyrillic writing and steep menu prices only intimidated me further, so I made my way to Cafe Glechik on Coney Island Avenue, most well-known to foodies for having been prominently featured on Anthony Bourdain’s show “No Reservations.”
Inside, the mood immediately lightened. Cafe Glechik serves Ukrainian food, specifically from the city of Odessa. While a day at the beach may not make sense on a 20?day, a bowl of borscht certainly does. As does harcho soup, made with lamb and cilantro, and a plate of vareniki (dumplings) stuffed with mushrooms and potatoes.
Moscow pelmeni, a tortellini-like pasta bursting with lamb hiding in a blanket of cheese and eggs was baked into a crispy gratin that echoed the snowy landscape outside.
“What, are you a food blogger or something?” said a voice from the table next to mine. I stopped focusing my camera on my meal and smiled. “What, did you hear about this place on Anthony Bourdain? Here, take some vodka from a local who’s here showing his friends around Brighton Beach.”
I took the ice-cold shot of vodka and felt warmth begin to set in. We began to chat. We talked about the neighborhood, how during the ’80s the area flooded with Jews from Russia, Georgia, Moldova, and other former Soviet Republics.The most recent immigrants weren’t necessarily Jewish and were bringing more wealth and flash to the area.
And we talked about food. He told me about the markets, and the nightclubs, which ran the gamut in glitz, quality and price. We walked back down the Avenue to M & I International Food where we climbed two flights of stairs to the lunch and dessert bars. I snapped my camera wildly around the market until a man with a full set of gold teeth, who I assume was some sort of manager, approached me and using only gestures, made it clear that I should stop taking photos. Immediately.
My new friend’s name was Roman, and he offered me his email address so that we could talk more about Russian food. We parted ways on a cold corner, the wind growing more fierce as the B train zoomed by.
Back home in my wonderfully overheated apartment, I immediately wrote to him and asked if I could send him a list of questions. “Sure,” he replied. “You can quote me as Roman G.” So I fired off my questions.
When eating Russian food, what do you recommend a non-Russian to try first? Is there a dish you enjoy that only a Russian could love? Do the restaurants and markets in Brighton Beach specifically reflect the food of Jewish Russian immigrants or is it reflective of a larger Russian culture? What is the newest wave of immigrants bringing to Brighton Beach?
Twelve days went by without a response.
I just wanted to check in and see if you received my last email. I know…I asked a lot of questions! Let me know if you’re still interested in sharing your stories of Brighton Beach.
But I never did hear back from Roman G. I wondered if I had offended him with some of my questions. Maybe I had just asked too much. But the unknown silence seems a fitting response to my attempt and my failure to surrender to winter.
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