San Francisco’s Richmond district is a long BART and bus ride away from where I once lived in the East Bay, a distant land as far as college me was concerned. But in 2003 I made the trek for a noir film festival and thought, maybe I’d try Russian food. My Russian teacher had recommended fifty-year-old Cinderella Bakery.
I almost changed my mind when I saw Cinderella’s plain, paint-chipped exterior. There was one door, cracked barely open, revealing a dim room. It creaked when I peeked inside. A blonde-haired and blue-eyed immigrant girl squinted at me from behind a counter. “Can…. I… help… you?” she asked in a thick accent.
I tiptoed inside. Another doorway led to a second room, barely visible behind heavy drapes. On long tables covered by white tablecloths, ornate glassware and vodka bottles formed miniature skylines.
The girl sighed. “You want piroshki?” she asked with arms folded. “We are not open today,” she added, nodding toward the dining room. From behind the drapes, sounds of shot glasses were punctuated by “na zdarovia!.”
I walked up to the glass counter and looked down at the day-old pastries. Greasy bread pockets sagged on mismatched white plates atop crumb-covered doilies. “What kind do you have?” I asked.
Cabbage, she spat. Okay, I conceded, and walked away, ate half of a very stale pirog and threw the rest away.
That was a decade ago, before I read Crime & Punishment, before I studied in Moscow, and before I learned the answer to the question: What is Russian food? Like everyone else in California, my best guess was a spectrum of bland potato and cabbage dishes, and bullish men trying to keep borscht out of bushy mustaches. Like everyone else in California who wasn’t Russian, I didn’t know what Russian food was, and thanks to a series of experiences eerily similar to my first visit to Cinderella, it didn’t seem possible to learn by dining out.
A couple months ago Mele and I ate at a Russian restaurant called Red Tavern in the Outer Richmond. Another young couple was dining at the table next to ours, wrinkling their brows at the menu. “Do you have pierogi?” the guy asked the waiter, unaware that the Polish word meant something else in Russian. The waiter apologized and answered, no, they did not carry pastries.
The same couple proceeded to ask: What is “Russian Root Beer”? Is it like American Root Beer?
“No,” the waiter responded curtly, and nobody knew where to take the conversation from there.
The server at Red Tavern didn’t mean to be rude. It’s just that he never signed up to be a curator. Most of his customers were groups of Russian-Americans who knew what they wanted and weren’t in the mood to learn about their server’s culture. He was a waiter, not a tour guide, and he didn’t want to be, and it showed.
It’s a scenario where both sides lose. After a decent meal, that young couple walked out with probably no intention to try Russian food again any time soon. There’s not enough access at restaurants run by Russian immigrants for Russian immigrants, like Red Tavern on Clement, like Renaissance on Geary, and like Cinderella Bakery circa 2003.
Last month I bought some Easter bread at Cinderella Bakery. The lady behind the counter beamed with pride. “Have you had this before…?” she asked as she handed me the bread and stamped my frequent buyer’s card.
This was the new Cinderella Bakery and Café, remodeled in 2010, redesigned with a whole new look and approach. Big windows opened onto Balboa Blvd. Outdoor seating spilled onto the sidewalk. Mothers ate granola and bananas beside strollers in the shade, students hung out with notebooks open, sipping their Ritual Coffee, and passing joggers swung by for nuked pastries.
The new Cinderella doesn’t hide behind tinted windows like Renaissance and Red Tavern, or behind heavy drapes and moody scowls, tucked away from the public like the old Cinderella. Instead of coldly nodding when I responded, “Yes I have,” the lady behind the counter smiled and struck up a friendly conversation. Behind me in line, an older couple listened in rapt attention, never having heard of kulich – a sweet, frosted loaf eaten only around Easter. The couple then proceeded to try it for the first time.
I’m not suggesting that all of Russian cuisine is a must-try. I’m not apologizing for its overbearing carbo-content or its lack of nutrient rich veggies. Even in Moscow the food is hardly a goldmine of flavor. At least, it’s hardly ever worth the dishware it’s served on.
Most Russian restaurants are slave to the old-fashioned idea that dining calls for fineries, as if the act of eating a meal at a table required aristocratic airs. In America, tablecloths, ornate glassware and china can make people uncomfortable – or worse, expect the kind of food associated with nice things.
That’s the problem with Katia’s, another Russian restaurant down the block from Cinderella. Despite the fact that the chef’s American husband happily bridges the gap between Russian food and newcomers, and despite decent dinner fare, the place misses the mark. Like Renaissance and Red Tavern, the food just doesn’t make sense next to that price tag, dimly lit, served with course-specific silverware.
Cinderella’s meals aren’t necessarily better, but the casual setting is more appropriate. That makes all the difference. Served with your choice of potatoes or kasha, Cinderella’s ten or so meals include stuffed cabbage, chicken kiev, beef stroganoff and cornish hen tabaka. My favorite is the lamb shank, so soft that you can almost spread the meat on kasha, like butter.
There are people like my dad, who says it ain’t a Chicago hot dog without a Mary Ann poppy seed bun. There are people like my friend Natasha, who was born in Moscow and shakes her head at Cinderella – for not using black currants, for stuffing their piroshki with un-Russian things like gorgonzola and cheddar.
Then there are people like me, who don’t mind spending a couple bucks less to eat something that’s probably much fresher. Cinderella makes an effort to sell goods made in house, from its famous baked-in-house bread to shelves of marinated mushrooms and vegetables, eggplant caviar. and assorted vinegret salads. Take kvass, a carbonated beverage that Red Tavern had mislabeled “Russian Root Beer”. It can be purchased in a store like soda, imported from Russia, with a formula altered for export, often past fresh, but Cinderella’s kvass is something else. Made from scratch with rye bread, raisins, and spices, Cinderella’s half-percent alcoholic beverage is refreshing, like a sweetened, carbonated iced tea beer.
I like Cinderella’s kvass on the rare warm Richmond day. I like the piroshki with my coffee in the mornings. I like most everything at Cinderella, and yet I wouldn’t claim anything there truly stands out in a neighborhood full of food that stands out.
That is, except for the soup.
The same goes for Russian cuisine in general. In fact, if someone asked me now, “What is Russian food?” I would answer, “Delicious soup.” Over half of my meals in Moscow consisted of soup only, and yes, that did include borscht on occasion, but not always. People overestimate the importance of borscht in Russian food as much as they underestimate the importance of soup.
My favorite Russian chowder is kharcho, a liquid version of Cinderella’s lamb shank dinner and the Georgian version of chicken soup with rice. Cinderella’s spinach soup is no slouch either, complete with dollop of sour cream and soft-boiled egg, and the pelmeni – drowned in fatty chicken broth – rounds out a list of champions. Cindrella’s solyanka is especially tasty. Bold, spicy and stuffed with sausage, it’s the perfect foil for sliced black bread. In fact, the best lunchtime meal in the Inner Richmond just might be the sandwich and cup of solyanka for $7.99.
Don’t tell the purists that I’ve recommended a turkey and avocado sandwich at a Russian restaurant. Ignore the fact that Cinderella Bakery and Café is as much an American coffee shop as it is a Russian restaurant. Just be happy there’s a place out there where people can try Russian food for themselves, because they’re not discouraged from doing so.
Cinderella Bakery and Cafe
436 Balboa St
San Francisco, CA 94118