I am watching Ukrainian MTV on a large screen in the back of the room. My server and cook, Roman Kshysyak, is having a running conversation with me throughout the meal. Every few minutes, an impossibly stylish woman who looks as if she walked out of Connery Bond flick strides by. Table settings include ornate silverware, stacked fancy plates, and crystal champagne and shot glasses. There is an overblown elegance to the place, with something rich and strange wherever the eye wanders.
Going out alone is occasionally sad and usually dull, but my solo visit to Olga's was anything but. The MTV had a train wreck sort of appeal, but then a sextet of tuxedoed guys blew me away with an a cappella rendition of Billie Jean. Soon, a live musician appeared in the restaurant and started playing and singing songs with his computer and keyboard that seemed to synch perfectly with the now mute MTVers. With the right crowd and a few drinks, a great time could be had just taking in the scene.
But what you really need to know is that Olga's is an excellent restaurant, utterly unique in our area. Some go out for comfort foods they know; if you're the other kind, the kind that goes out to try things you don't know, Olga's delivers.
Lots of Eastern Europeans like preserved meats and fish, and Ukrainians apparently do, too. The fish cold cut appetizer ($4.75) includes several types of smoked fish. For the more stout, there is herring fillet "marinated with the best Ukrainian traditions" ($3.95). Roman thought this product was made by Russians in Alaska. Wherever it came from, the people have blitzed their taste buds. It's as strong as anchovies, with a mustard-like flavor. The small order is plenty for three to sample. Michael Warren Thomas approved of eggplant slices topped by onion and tomato and then baked ($3.50).
Borshch the menu claims as the "original Ukrainian red beets soup" ($3.75). I asked Olga if the Russians didn't also claim borscht. She said everybody makes such soups, but that they are different. Fair enough. Michael found it a bit too light, but I found the lightness appealing and the flavor deep. We also tried split pea soup ($3.50), which has shavings of carrot and strong garlic aura.
Pierogis, which Olga's calls varenyky, are made from scratch (and sold frozen at Olga's store). $5.50 nets a dozen with potatoes and fried onion, cheddar, or cottage cheese; cottage cheese with or without sugar; sour kraut with or without mushrooms; or cherries. All have a thin wrapper and a generous ratio of filling. Pilimeni are meat dumplings filled with chicken, turkey, "Ukrainian blend" (beef and pork), or veal (12 for $6.50). Olga's has been bringing these in (it's harder to get licensed to produce meat products), but will begin serving their own soon.
Three real highlights were the golubtsi (stuffed cabbage, $7.95), chenahy (stew, $10.95), and cheburek (fried dough stuffed with pork, $2.95). The cabbage is distinctive, with the rice, pork, and vegetable filling taking on a soft, meatloaf-like texture, and prominently featuring carrot flavor. A spectacular mushroom sauce finishes it off. Describing chenahy as "beef stew" undercuts its rich, subtle flavor. And the cheburek is just out of this world, texturally akin to the best apple fritters, but filled with delicately seasoned, ground pork. They're always gone early in the day.
There are several meat-centric dishes, including cutlets of pork or chicken ($8.95), pork shish kabob ($11.95), and a terrific baked haddock topped with carrot, onion, and just a touch of homemade tomato sauce ($10.95). Most dishes come with steamed vegetables (not overcooked!) and a dollop of honest-to-goodness mashed potatoes.
Several salads feature a mild sauerkraut and marinated carrots. I dug a different kind of salad, called prykarpattya, with its small dice of pickle, cooked egg, potato, and a sausage called kovbasa in a mayonnaise dressing.
Desserts come from a Ukrainian bakery in New York City ($3.95 each). Various complexly layered cakes are good, though suffering a tad for the trip. But one that traveled marvelously was smerkova hado (something like "honeycomb house"). If you thought a genuine Schwarzwald Kirschtorte was trouble, check this out: cherry filling gets rolled in pastry tubes; those are stacked in a triangular configuration, with cream and cake as mortar; it's then iced, topped in nuts, and baked. When sliced, it looks a bit like a honeycomb. Wow. And the coffee is just fine.
Olga Dereshchuk is a dancer who immigrated a decade ago with her musician husband, Vasil Mykytyuk. She and Vasil performed at various upstate churches before finding themselves running a cleaning service (another story of our culture's regard for the arts). But slowly they built a Toronto-based business, Meest ("Bridge"), which transported goods between Ukrainian families back home and in North America. Four years ago, they opened their store (with cool stuff like kinder eggs). The restaurant opened a year ago.
And it's been slow. It must be location, because the service is excellent, so is the food, the prices are reasonable, and the whole experience is singular. Roman says they're considering replacing part of the Ukrainian menu with more familiar food (steaks, pasta). Let's all get up there a few times and keep that from happening. It would be a crying shame.
Olga's Restaurant, 303 East Ridge Road, 342-2151. Hours: 7 days a week, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. (but call first).
Join Slow Food Rochester for a Chocolate Tasting on Monday, February 6, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at Max of Eastman Place. There will be chocolate history, chocolate heath science, chocolate (of course), and wine. Admission is $12 for Slow Food members, $16 for non-members, and must be purchased in advance. Email Michael@savorlife.com or call 328-8300 for info. There will be an optional three-course dinner at Max beginning at 5:30 that same night ($40). Call the restaurant for reservations: 697-0491.
--- Michael Warren Thomas
Michael Warren Thomas can be heard weekends on WYSL 1040 AM. Details and archives available at www.savorlife.com