- Walter Novak
- Comfort food, Russki-style: Cabbage rolls, stuffed pepper, pelmeni, and sausage.
The last time I can recall getting into a fight over food, I was five, and the neighborhood bully was threatening to run off with my sour-apple DumDum. So imagine my surprise when, during a recent visit to Akron's Globe Café, a companion and I nearly came to blows over the last forkful of fried cabbage.
Yes, fried cabbage -- that greasy, acrid-smelling staple of the eastern European kitchen, soul mate of pierogi and broad haluska noodles, and veggie non grata to those whose tastes run to haute cuisine. But before your lip curls in distaste, know this: Delicately shredded, butter-kissed, and fragrant with paprika, this was one serving of sautéed crucifer that dissolved on the tongue like candy, leaving behind not a gray, metallic aftertaste, but a sweet and gentle richness similar to a fine bonbon. In other words: This was fried cabbage worth fighting for!
As luck would have it, though, it was at this precise moment that the platter of galushki arrived, and we gladly called a truce. That the galushki (Ukrainian flour-and-egg dumplings, lightened by the addition of finely sieved cottage cheese, served with butter -- of course! -- and caramelized onion) had been ordered as a starter, and the fried cabbage was intended as a side dish for our yet-to-arrive entrées, hardly bothered us at all by this point. Like everyone else who dines at this charmingly eccentric Russian restaurant in the Cuyahoga Valley, we simply came to accept that the heaping platters of homemade food come out of the kitchen in their own good time, as determined solely by the motherly staff of Russian and Ukrainian cooks.
As a result, when the cabbage is ready, you get cabbage; when the pelmeni is ready, you get pelmeni. Same goes for the borscht, the cabbage rolls, and the chicken à la Kiev. But, as the Globe's owner and Ukrainian native Elizabeth Olefir will point out, that's the price one pays when nearly everything -- from stuffed peppers to meringue tortes -- is made entirely from scratch, the old-fashioned way.
Olefir opened her small West Akron dining room a little more than a year ago, at the end of a short strip plaza in space that had held a G.D. Ritzy ice-cream parlor. Now remodeled and repainted in shades of lavender, purple, and mauve, with a backlit, cloud-covered ceiling done up in the colors of an Arizona sunset, the split-level room holds perhaps 20 tables -- although during the course of three visits, we never saw more than 5 of them occupied.
This is too bad, because Olefir's kitchen turns out some of the most painstakingly prepared Eastern European comfort food you'll find in Northeast Ohio. At its best, this is food that is homey, rustic, and satisfying, yet nearly as carefully wrought as some "upscale" cuisine. For instance, sunny yellow chicken stock, used in both the Ukrainian-style borscht and a hearty chicken-and-dumpling soup, is simmered for hours, until its flavors become intensely concentrated and robust. Beef, pork, or chicken fillings in the potsticker-like pelmeni, the giant green peppers, or the flaky, golden, meat-stuffed pastries (perojok) are finely ground, lean, and subtly seasoned with mysterious Russian spice blends. And the vegetables in the rosy "vinegret" salad (cooked beets and potatoes, and dill pickles) are so neatly and uniformly cubed that they look almost manufactured -- at least, until you bite into them and the fresh, wholesome flavors weave themselves round your taste buds.
Even the bread basket is an adventure, filled with thick slices of dense, dark Russian brown bread (some days home-baked, other days not), tweaked with caraway and citrus; slender, imported bread sticks covered in honey-sweetened poppy seeds; and hard, doughnut-shaped sooshka, dipping cookies commonly offered as a symbol of Russian hospitality.
Although she suspects her cooks of occasional ad-libbing, Olefir says that many of the dishes served at the Globe, such as the chopped-and-fried eggplant appetizer Odessa, are based on family recipes. Others, like the threads of "Korean" carrots, seasoned with garlic and coriander, or the Olivier salad (a special-occasion potato salad, with chopped eggs, diced pickle, and shreds of tender chicken), are traditional. And still others, including the lean, smoky sticks of pork-and-beef "hunter" sausages, are custom-made for the restaurant on the East Coast.
Good as they are, a steady diet of such foods would undoubtedly turn even a lissome Ally into a heavyweight Olga. Still, within the confines of the medium, the kitchen earns props for its relatively light touch with seasonings, textures, and even with fats -- although we do concede that the Globe's air can sometimes turn slightly opaque with the smoke from all that frying. However, salt is used rarely (a veggie-based seasoning is substituted); fresh-tasting dill, garlic, and vinegar show up routinely; and, if the home fries resemble oily potato chips, the mashed potatoes are light and airy enough to practically float off the plate.
The meat-stuffed, bite-size pelmeni could become an addiction as well, with their just-garlicky-enough meat filling and their irresistibly tender noodle-dough wrappers -- so thin, tight, and elastic that they practically popped when we bit into them. Side those bad boys with some of that buttery fried cabbage for an unforgettable down-home dinner. Better yet, add a bowl of the remarkably nuanced borscht, with finely grated shreds of carrot, beet, cabbage, and potato, and you'll discover Slavic heaven on a lacy paper placemat.
Olefir also stocks Russian vodka and about a dozen types of imported Russian, Croatian, and Ukrainian beers, in massive 16.9-ounce bottles. Don't bother looking for a beverage menu, though, or asking the staff for descriptions; our questions, at least, were answered with a wave of the hand toward the array of bottles arranged near the front of the dining room. Our ability to decipher the labels being negligible, we finally just asked the server to pick out one bottle of "a light, sweet" beer and one of a more sturdy, manly brew. This technique resulted in bottles of very sweet Beer Yantarnoye and the heavier but still sweet Baltika Extra Pale Beer. With an ABV of 8 percent, the Baltika, a golden, medium-bodied, European-style lager, was as easy-drinking as an American malt liquor, and at $3.75, a pretty good value for the buzz. But like the Yantarnoye, a thinner lager from Yaroslav with a 5.3 percent ABV ($4), it's not likely to top anyone's list of distinguished brews. (As soon as she has a dependable arrangement with her importer, Olefir promises she'll get to work on a descriptive beverage menu.)
Choosing a post-meal sweet, too, can be a gamble: Again, there is no written dessert menu, and the representative items on the dessert tray were dry and crumbled almost beyond recognition. We eventually settled on the "Elizabeth Torte," named in Olefir's honor by one of her cooks; the multistoried edifice of meringue, butter-cream frosting, and walnuts was more than large enough to share and sweet enough that all but the most devoted sugar-heads will certainly wish to do so.
Sharing, of course, is always a companionable way to dine, and with its more-than-ample portions and reasonable prices (nothing on the menu checks in at more than $10), the Globe is a fine spot for sharing an evening with a group of hale and hungry friends. Drink some beer, dig the spirited Russian music (live on Friday and Saturday evenings; recorded the rest of the time), and dive into the unpretentious fare. But please, don't fight over the last bite of fried cabbage: There's plenty more where that came from!