Borscht Belt on the Beach
Each year Sunny Isles Beach welcomes more than a million vacationers to its two-and-a-half-mile stretch of fine sand and sparkling waters. When a Russian company began building apartments in the area in 1996, the City of Sun and Sea also began welcoming a substantial influx of folks from that country and other former republics of the Soviet Union. The 2000 census put the Russian population here at eleven percent (in a city of 15,000), but most believe this number has gone up considerably since. The latest wave of immigrants, which includes Russian-Americans relocating from the Northeast, are more affluent and acclimated than those who arrived stateside in the 1970s, and they have been snapping up condominiums in the looming high-rise towers booming along the Collins Avenue waterfront. Moscow on the Hudson is now Moscow by the Trump.
The strip mall right across the street from Trump International Sonesta Beach Resort, at 180th Street and Collins, is unofficially known as Russian Plaza. Cyrillic signs hang in shop windows, and the bulbous letters of that alphabet populate the left side of each menu page at Sugar Rush Café as well. Come 9:00 every evening, this restaurant/nightclub exudes a 1970s, Borat sort of cool a mirrored ball spins, colored lights twirl, and a singing duet crowds a small stage to belt out Russian pop standards over loudly recorded music. Diners ignore No Smoking signs and drag on cigarettes. Vodka-fueled couples clasp on the dance floor. Sugar Rush is a kitschy and insular enclave for émigrés, and although it might or might not be your cup of borscht, it inarguably provides a dramatically distinctalternative to dining with friends at the same old sushi or Italian joints.
Speaking of borscht, the version here boasts soft morsels of beef in a warm crimson broth boosted with shredded beets. A dollop of sour cream from a side dish counters the sweetness and is also served alongside Ukrainian solyanka, a thin beef soup touched with tomato paste, tartly puckered with pickle water and lemon slices, and, as is tradition, amply stocked with cabbage (sauerkraut translates to "solenya"), mushrooms, black and green olives, a healthy dose of dill, and a small dice of numerous meats such as bacon, tongue, and a thin, frankfurterlike sausage. It is far tastier than one could ever imagine a cold-cut-and-pickle soup to be.
On the other hand, I had envisioned a better herring plate. Or at least a different one. The slippery silver fish fillet was fresh enough, but I prefer a stronger pickling, and if I had my druthers, it would also be aswirl in sour cream and thinly sliced onions but that's just the East European in me speaking. Our waiter suggested a side of potatoes to go with the herring, and the hefty hunks of crisp, twice-fried spuds were terrific. The same potatoes came piled alongside a bowl of beef à la stroganoff. The history of this dish dates to the 1890s, when a chef working for Count (and renowned general) Pavel Alexandrovich Stroganov created it for a cooking competition in Saint Petersburg and served the stew, that very first time, with crisp twice-fried potatoes (not buttered noodles, as some would have you believe). The stroganoff at Sugar Rush was standard if unspectacular strips of tender beef simmered with mushrooms in a sour cream sauce.
Better was the cornish hen tabaka, the Georgian recipe featuring a flattened whole bird greaselessly pan-fried while pressed with a weight. It was crisp-skinned, juicy, and delectable when dipped into a dish of tkemali sauce made of tart plums and coriander. Fluffy mashed potatoes and a salad of field greens perked with peppers added up to a hefty plate of fresh, flavorful food for just $16 (same price as the stroganoff dinner). Most of the rest of the menu is continental: New York strip steak, rack of lamb, shish kebab, chicken marsala, scallops in garlic butter, cheese tortellini with tomato sauce, and a whole mess of Italian desserts.
Russian Plaza houses another restaurant/nightclub called Tangerine, whose menu is likewise a mix of Soviet and European classics. We'll remove the peel from this place at a future date, because there is yet a third purveyor of Russian foods in the strip mall, and a most recommendable one at that: Kalinka Russian-European Delicatessen. Customers are known to come here from several counties away so they can purchase the herring, halvah, kasha, kefir, caviar, candies, Georgian wines, bottles of bouncy Baltika beer, and all manner of marinated and pickled vegetables in glass jars including full garlic bulbs as well as whole tomatoes with the stems still attached. Folks also flock here for the home-cooked specialties, served at a smattering of tables in the front portion of the market (with additional seating outside).
Kalinka's counter is a lineup of glass display cases, as in a deli, filled respectively with an assortment of smoked fish, sundry sausages, salads, warm foods (that if eaten on premises are heated in a microwave), and, a bit off to the side, cakes and pastries. Refrigerated units in the back of the store are stocked with dairy products, and a freezer holds various dumplings, including pelmeni and vareniki. The former originated in Siberia, where the filled pastas could be prepared in large quantities and stored frozen outside for several months. Kalinka's small, spherical housemade pelmeni come stuffed with either minced chicken or a so-called Siberian mix of pork and beef. Half-moon vareniki, a Ukrainian specialty, are plumped with sweetened cottage cheese or potatoes. All dumplings can be ordered from the menu and are prepared as they were in the Old World boiled in water immediately before eating. This means you won't see them displayed with the other prepared lunch items, and you'll have to wait for them to cook from scratch, but the resultant dish is blissfully fresh and richly enhanced by sour cream. If you haven't guessed by now, sour cream is the Russian ketchup.
Kalinka's chicken stroganoff is an exceptionally light take on the classic. For a gratifying lunch (or, for that matter, dinner), try it with some steamed buckwheat groats (kasha) and one of the salads, perhaps the tart pink toss of diced beets, pickles, cabbage, potatoes, and lentils. Other appealing (and heartwarming) dishes include stuffed cabbage and stuffed green pepper, both filled with the same savory beef-and-rice filling; a sweet/sour vegetable medley of eggplant, carrots, onions, and red peppers; a borscht that was skimpy on beef but bulky with beets, cabbage, carrots, onions, and dill; a small, moist pork steak in brown sauce; and knockout chicken or fish croquettes, each the size of a really fat burger. Splendid, too, were the blintzes, neatly pan-fried crêpes slenderly packaged around either minced beef or sweet cottage cheese. Pass the sour cream!
Cheese blintzes are ideal for dessert, as are pan-fried, puck-shape, sweetened cottage cheese cakes called sirniki (available with or without raisins). Convivial workers behind the counter pour a respectable cup of espresso too. Oh yeah there's also the aforementioned display case brimming with sweeter sweets, like a napoleon oozing with pastry cream; a multilayer honey-graham cake also oozing pastry cream; and the spud-size kartoshka ("potato"),a chocolate-sprinkled, nut-studded, scrumptious sphere of chocolate ganache (think of it as the largest chocolate truffle you will ever eat). As you might imagine, upon exiting Kalinka, you may have to loosen your borscht belt a bit.
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