July is the cruelest month in Houston, when the heat congeals into a crushing, invisible mass and September seems impossibly far away. Redemption in July is where you find it: even within an unglamorous styrofoam bowl at an eccentric little storefront Russian deli called Yakov's.
Chef Yakov Shteyman's chilled beet-and-cabbage borscht is one of those rare summer elixirs that transport you to a cooler state of mind. That it comes in a festive shade of magenta only adds to its magic; likewise the fact that it is at once light and nourishing, subtle and tart, simple and not-so, its multidimensional shreds of beet, cabbage, red pepper and potato smoothed out with a snowy dollop of sour cream. It is purely vegetarian stuff, and none the less interesting for it; at $1.75 for a medium-size bowl, the borscht is such a bargain that the indignity of having to eat it with a plastic spoon, from a styrofoam bowl, seems altogether tolerable.
The finicky can buy a couple of borschts to go and install the soup in their best china, where it will be right at home. Yakov's Deli is conducive to takeout, anyway: its snug, three-table quarters, overtaxed air conditioning and absence of frills will not be to everyone's taste. But it is meticulously tidy and well-ordered, from its Russian photos and woodcut prints to its focal-point deli case stuffed with Russian-style sausage, cheese and candies. And in this tiny kingdom of two, chef Yakov and his wife, Esther, produce food that is wonderfully inexpensive and full of surprise. Connoisseurs of dumplings, soups and sandwiches should make it a point to stop by.
How long has it been, for instance, since you tasted a sandwich that truly exceeded the sum of its parts? Chef Yakov's blockbuster, grandly dubbed The Moscow, does so by virtue of its singular mayonnaise-and-mustard dressing, which is briskly lemoned and garlicked and fluffed up with hard-boiled egg. This amazing substance transforms mere turkey, roast beef, salami and luxurious Muenster-style Russian cheese into an event. Housed on a capacious roll, The Moscow is big enough to share; together with some borscht and a refreshing, sweet-sour cabbage salad that makes American cole slaw look positively sluggish, this is my idea of a July-proof cold supper.
Yakov Shteyman himself, however, exudes an aura that is anything but cool. Marshall McLuhan, the ancient media god, would have recognized this burly, vociferous chef as a "hot" personality; indeed, so expansive and emphatic is the Yakovian persona that it seems to fill up every inch of his deli's small space. A whirlwind of hyperbole and professional pride, Shteyman touts his wares and prices as "the best," brooks no argument, trots out his framed press clippings and credentials at the drop of a hat. In the face of his enthusiastic convictions (not to mention those of his number-one fan, Esther), the most sensible course is to go with the Yakovian flow. The experience is not unlike dining in the kitchen of a talented and slightly manic uncle.
Where else but Yakov's could you eat spectacular escargots, their ceramic baking dish borne forth on an orange plastic tray, for three bucks? His snails "Cafe de Paris" are tender and exuberantly garlicky, with a lilting current of fresh lime that gives them great style. Of course, you must eat them under fluorescent lights, with only a garden-variety dinner roll to sop up their aromatic juices; should you want a glass of wine to drink along with them, you will have to bring your own bottle. And your own glass, for that matter, unless you are fond of sipping from styrofoam. But it is both amusing and perversely gratifying to eat first-rate snails in such unlikely circumstances.
Those snails bear witness to Shteyman's peripatetic career, which took him from culinary school in Kiev, in the Ukraine, to stints at Houston's Stouffer Hotel and The Briar Club. For the past three years, he and Esther have been catering out of their deli and offering a short menu that runs from Ukrainian dumplings to -- I kid you not -- chicken-fried steak "à la Russe."
Not everything clicks, but several of the Russian specialties are strikingly good. Those Ukrainian dumplings, for example: folded around a rich, amber puree of potato and caramelized onion, their pleasantly doughy wrappers are sturdy enough to give the deli's flimsy plastic forks a workout. Mahogany-brown caramelized onions are scattered across the top; the effect is both earthy and elusive. With some marinated cabbage or a green salad, these pirogi dumplings make an exotic lunch.
Shteyman's Siberian pelmeni are more delicate members of the dumpling genre: thin-skinned little caps of hand-pinched pasta filled with a pale, savory mince of beef and chicken. Collina's estimable Italian cafe, a few doors down the strip center, cannot boast a single pasta so compelling. The pelmeni more than hold their own with just a dash of buttery pan juice, sparked with a squeeze of lime, for a sauce. My companions were smitten. "I'd love to take these home and try them with some ginger, or a ponzu sauce," said one. "Try them in this soup!" commanded the other, brandishing a bowlful of rarefied chicken consomme in which pelmeni bobbed happily. I promptly filed that in the portion of my brain labeled "Restoratives, Home Remedies and Chicken Soups Worth Eating."
Blintzes went into the file marked "Pancakes Worth Eating": folded into crisply browned triangles, these thin crepes hide the same gentle beef-and-chicken filling that graces the pelmeni. Sour cream gives them just enough topspin. But for some reason, the meat filling in the baked turnovers called pirozhki falls flat; these Russian stuffed-croissant analogs are simply not that interesting.
And alas, chef Yakov's bargain schnitzel "Kiev," which costs all of $3.99 with a vegetable and rice, does not live up to the standards set by his escargots. The flattened chicken involved gets lost beneath its crisp mantle of browned crumbs and its peppery, brandied sauce, which is halfway to being a gravy. You could be eating anything: mystery meat, tofu cutlet, filet of cardboard. So I passed on the similarly constructed chicken-fried chicken à la Russe, even though Esther assured me that chef Yakov's cream gravy was so delicious that I could eat it all by itself, like soup.
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But a young man clad in gym togs, who pulled up in a Ferrari convertible, appeared perfectly happy with his Yakovian blue-plate supper of trout sauteed with white wine, lemon butter and innumerable slivered almonds -- "even better" than the advertised walnuts, chef Yakov insisted with customary confidence. His running commentary and spirited dialogue -- some of it in Russian -- constitutes a floor show and mini-food seminar. Beet wine, green borscht concocted of spinach and sorrel leaves, soup stock enriched with buttermilk whey: one's head spins with Shteyman's esoteric culinary lore. "Try this!" he'll order with evangelical zeal, breaking off a garlicky hunk of long, skinny Kabanosy sausage and imparting precise cooking instructions. (Simmer three minutes to bring up the flavors.)
Cast so much as a glance toward the chef's elaborately decorated desserts, and you will quickly learn that his cheesecake "Houston" contains a third less sugar than other cheesecakes, and none of that nasty gelatin -- all of which makes it an admirable piece of work, and a deal at $1.50. His brownies with marbled frosting are not nearly as ingratiating. But the amusingly wrapped candies the Shteymans import from Brooklyn, where there's a thriving Russian community, make perfect small desserts. You can't go wrong with the chef's own favorite, a dark-chocolate log called a Greelasch, which is laced with chopped almonds; or with the plump dried apricots swaddled in bittersweet chocolate. With proper distribution, candies like these could render tiramisu and mousse cakes blessedly obsolete.
Before making a borscht run, be advised that the Shteymans operate on a cash-or-check basis, and that their hours are restricted to lunch between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; dinner from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday and Friday. (They close on Sunday and Monday.)
Yakov's Deli, 3925 Richmond, 621-3308.