[UPDATE: CLOSED, keeping on page as only example of Belarus food]
For the trip out to sample the city's (and possibly the region's) only cuisine specifically of Belarus, I enlisted the help of a good friend from neighboring Ukraine. It turned out to be useful in many ways, mostly related to language, but also just getting us a table. The restaurant was fully booked for large groups coming in for birthday celebrations and the $30 "banket," a hasty transliteration of the Russian word for banquet. Luckily he was able to get a table and three chairs brought out for us, even if we did have to sit right next to the door on a frigid night. Over the course of the night, we saw couples come in and get turned away since there was no space left for them.
I was immediately happy to be here, with the delicious smells coming from the kitchen, tacky but perfect decorations from the motherland, and big flag of Belarus hanging in the back. A smaller flag was researched and turned out to be the flag of Alexander Lukashenko and his party, a man who has retained absolute power in Belarus since 1994 and apparently the hero of the owners here. They even have a menu item that translates as the "Hello from Lukashenko omelette."
The large empty table set up for a big group was filled shortly after we started ordering, with a group of ten or so that literally brought a case of alcohol with them. Bottles of wine and vodka were set up and down the table so never far from reach for each person.
The owner seemed like a friendly gentleman, and even came out to make sure we were "no cold?" at our table. To get us warmed up, we started ordering a few appetizers, both hot and cold. The typical salad olivie ($6.50, below) was tasty but used cheap boiled sausages instead of fresh ham. Despite this, it was devoured in no time.
We got our fill of thinly sliced meats with both the pan fried tongue with garlic ($7.90, above) and buzhenina ($6.50, below). I generally dislike tongue mostly for its texture, but all the hair is removed from this version and the thin cuts insure it goes down pretty easy. You could probably pass this off as "normal" meat if you did not tell someone squeamish what they were eating. It is pleasantly fried and seasoned, but one slice was still enough for me. The buzhenina is always a staple of my former Soviet republic meals just as the olivie is, and is always done well, with a spicy horseradish and probably a little beet to make it purple.
By this point we were into the second phase of toasting coming from our friends with the birthday party. The first phase consists of well put together verses, mainly from one man at the far end who was the husband of the birthday girl. The second phase was less thought out as the vodka starts to hit the brain. Paragraphs turn into sentences, still lovely and sincere, just shortened. Eventually the third phase would be simple raises of the glass and an excuse to shoot another, with toasts limited down to the most basic "to our health" sort of stuff. After that, singing begins and possibly dancing later, with toasts surprisingly getting longer again, although somewhat indecipherable.
We wanted soup on this January night and found the Ukrainian borscht ($4.99, above) to be appetizing. Our Ukrainian of course knew he would have nothing nice to say about it and stayed away, but we scooped the sour cream and dug into the warmth.
We were all in the mood for the potato pancakes with shkvarki ($7.50, below), which unfortunately came out soaked in grease. This was a good excuse for me to get lectured on my decision not to include vodka in this meal, one of many excuses as it turned out. The shkvarki is fried pork lard and as you can imagine, adds a very delicious flavor to the pancakes. Also called "draniki," the Facebook page of the restaurant claims that they serve "the best in Brooklyn." You be the judge!
For our mains, as we were already getting stuffed and having dishes wrapped up for future consumption, we first chose the pork podzharka ($7.50, below), with buckwheat. It is also available with mashed potatoes and rice. The pork is well-seasoned and covered with fried onions.
The mochanka ($8.50, below) is a Belorussian star on the menu, a dish specific to a cuisine that otherwise is cozy with its neighbors. The sizzling hot and oily dish is served with a type of "crepe," mainly used for soaking it all up. I am not sure which seasons you might find this in, but it certainly worked well on this frigid winter night in Brooklyn. The platter of almost stew is a mixture of fatty pork and in this case, Spam, certainly not what the recipe calls for. Despite that, it is impossibly enjoyable even if our table was not downing the vodka necessary to cut the grease.
In somewhat of a coma, I was habitually staring over at the birthday party and marveling at the amount of vodka one man in particular was consuming. He caught me staring at one point and offered loudly in Russian: "If he wants some, I will pour him some!" An acceptance of this offer would of course mean we would have to join their party and end up singing and dancing, so I put the tail between my legs and tried to stop using them for my enjoyment.
As if to torture ourselves, dessert came out in the form of cottage cheese pancake "syrniki" with wild berries ($10.50, above). The "wild berries" were only strawberries, but this dish was an amazing end to an incredible meal and experience, along with the $5 tea pot for the table. The pancakes are also heavy though and we each struggled to finish one, before going back out into the subzero night.