Bear with me here, I'm so used to cramming my thoughts into 400-500 words now that it feels strange to do my usual rambling. Anyway, I'm ashamed to admit that I didn't set foot in the Russian Bear Café until I went to talk to Oleg and Lana for BoiseWeekly.com, even though I'd been living in Eagle for many months. Of course there are a ton of restaurants in the Boise area and I can never hope to make it to all of them, but I have a definite soft spot for foreign cuisine, especially comfort food. And Russian Bear has that in spades.
|Russian hot sauce. Yeah, I was surprised too.|
We've all had hot sauce at one time or another, but I'd never tried anything like this. Yes there was heat, but not the kind of vinegary, flavor-destroying heat that I'm used to. This was bold, complex and utterly delicious. I lasted just over a week before I had to return for dinner.
The roommate and I showed up with the older child in tow, pretty much knowing what we were going to order. I would have the Beef Stroganoff, a dish I'd seen brought out to a customer during my previous visit and one which Oleg assured me was traditionally Russian . My roomie faltered a little but settled finally on the Cabbage Rolls, a dish which Oleg told me that he recommends at least one order of to any table with one or more women. The kid went with the dish that Oleg had told me is one of his favorite breakfasts, a Russian crepe with condensed caramelized milk and powdered sugar (just order a "Number 8", he'll know what you're talking about). I also couldn't pass up the chance to have a bottle of Baltika No. 9, a Russian Lager with 8%(!) alcohol.
|Baltika No. 9 Extra Lager|
I'm not much of a beer guy, I have to admit. Nine times out of ten I'll take a glass of red wine. Or a martini. Or a nice single malt. My roommate says I'd be an alcoholic if I could afford to buy the stuff I like on a regular basis. Still, a good lager is a beautiful thing, and if you can find a tasty one that still packs a punch like this that's even more beautiful, no?
|Crepe Number 8|
I'm not going to lie; from the moment Oleg told me about the caramelized condensed milk on this crepe, I was dubious. I don't even take milk with my cereal (unless you count almond milk), and this mutant offspring did not sound appealing. Still, Oleg told me I had to try it, and I was very impressed. It was rich, chewy and decadent. I honestly couldn't say whether I prefer French or Russian style at this point, but I'll be more than happy to continue investigating. The roommate tried it and immediately declared that it was what she'd be ordering the next time we returned, and as for the kid? Notorious for her comments in my first Boise Fry Company write-up, she is one of the pickiest eaters I know, and even she liked this.
|Cabbage Rolls with mashed red potatoes|
The roommate liked her food as well. Sadly, trying a bite or two (or five) of hers was the first time I'd ever had cabbage rolls, and oh how I mourn the wasted years. Cabbage leaves stuffed with beef and turkey, covered in tomato sauce and baked until the leaves take on the texture of pasta and then dressed with a thin sour cream...my god they were delectable. And who would have thought that tomato sauce would work so well with mashed potatoes? This is one of those dishes that just epitomizes the whole idea of comfort food, and the only thing that kept me from being jealous of her meal was how hard I fell in love with my own.
|REAL Beef Stroganoff|
I LOVE sauces, at least as long as they serve to enhance a dish rather than to hide its shortcomings, which is so often the case with stroganoff prepared in this country. I don't know what your experience with the dish has been, but in my childhood home it basically consisted of ground beef mixed with cream of mushroom soup and sour cream, usually served over egg noodles or plain white rice. What arrived on my plate bore so little resemblance to that dish that I don't see how they can share the same name. Medallions of buttery soft beef swam in a complex, savory and balanced sauce. I didn't ask Oleg about the recipe and my research has yielded a number of different variations, but in the end it doesn't matter. Sometimes it's better to kick back and let a master do the work, and next time I'm craving this I'll be more than happy to return to Russian Bear for it. The sauce was terrific on the potatoes as well, and the delicious little pile of mixed grains is the most unique side dish I've had in quite some time.
A couple of weeks later while moving all of our stuff to our new place, the roomie and I decided to hit up Russian Bear again, this time for a very late breakfast. True to her word, she ordered the Number 8, while I settled on the Potato Pancakes with Polish Sausage.
|Potato Pancakes with Polish Sausage|
This was an interesting dish. The sausage was flavorful without packing the spice I usually expect from Polish sausage (even if said item is not traditionally spicy), and the pancakes were dense but lightly flavored with richness lent by that thin sour cream drizzle. Maybe I've been spoiled by too many breakfasts with strong cheeses, peppers, Tabasco and so on, but this was almost too mild for me. It didn't occur to me at the time, but I'll bet some of Oleg's special hot sauce would have been just the thing needed to bring this dish into my comfort zone, and I suspect that the combination would be a terrific "morning after" meal. I'll most certainly have to try that next time, unless of course Oleg is offering his special prime rib that day...
To sum up, great people (ask Oleg about the book of quotes he keeps behind the counter), expertly prepared home style comfort food, and while the prices of some items may be a little higher than you might expect, where else are you going to find food like this around here? Very highly recommended.
Final Grade: A