Restaurant Reviews

Bear Hug

When you go to Cafe East -- and you definitely should -- make sure to call ahead to find out if it's open.

Here's the deal: The first time I drove out (way out, it's located on Wilcrest just off Briar Forest), on a Wednesday night, the place was dark. After a long, teeth-clenching drive home, I called the place, thinking there might be information on the answering machine. Someone answered the phone instead and said the restaurant was closed for two days to prepare for a private party. I was told Cafe East would be open its regular hours the following week.

The next week, recalling my fruitless trip west, I decided to call before climbing into the vehicle. Boy, was I glad I did. I was told that the restaurant was closed for the night (for reasons I didn't quite grasp) but that it would definitely, positively, absolutely be open the following evening and would I like to make reservations?

Deciding to live dangerously, I drove out the following night sans reservations. Fortunately, the third time was a charm -- in more ways than one. Cafe East, when open, is a winner, a small family-run restaurant with wonderfully hearty food and charm to spare.

Located in an old fast-food outlet (or perhaps a deli, since the entrances to the restrooms are outside), Cafe East specializes in Russian cuisine as well as dishes from the breakaway republic of Kazakhstan, homeland of owner and chef Ayat Ilyakhunob.

So how does Kazakhstan's food differ from its Russian neighbor's? It's a good question. Formerly part of the USSR, Kazakhstan is located south of Russia and west of China. The food at Cafe East largely reflects the culinary influences of Kazakhstan's old Russian master, yet it can't hide the fact that Asian recipes and ideas have obviously slipped across the border.

The spicy carrot salad ($1.99) is a good example of the Asian influence. (Not to mention the charm of the restaurant: The owner sent out a portion at no charge, thinking it was something we'd like to try. He was right.) Thin, noodlelike shreds of carrot are tossed with a light, spicy dressing; its clean, Asian, almost astringent taste is a marvelous complement to the sweet, crunchy carrots.

For a purely Russian appetizer, try the potatoes and herring ($3.99). Cool chunks of herring share a colorful plastic platter with warm slices of potato drizzled with oil and vinegar; a thinly sliced onion sits on the side, a sly reference no doubt to the beautiful onion domes that top those golden Kremlin cathedrals. Or not. Regardless, the firm, meaty herring, slightly mealy potato and sharp onion make for a memorable combination. (A companion commented that the herring was the best he has had outside of Sweden, a.k.a. Herring Central.)

Garlic fanatics should take note of the Israeli salad ($2.99, and I don't have any idea how an "Israeli" salad made it to Kazakhstan). Baked eggplant is pureed and mixed with mayonnaise, chopped walnuts and what seems to be every clove from the Gilroy Garlic Festival. It's absolutely delicious, plus you'll be impervious to vampires for a week afterward. (One quibble, though: the bread. Cafe East serves a perfectly lackluster, supermarket-quality French bread. I kept imagining how good the spread would be on hearty Russian black bread.)

Another Russian classic is the borscht ($2.49). There are, of course, two different kinds of borscht: what M.F.K. Fisher called a "little borscht" (the kind you see in jars at the supermarket, basically flavored beet juice) and a "big borscht" (a hearty vegetable soup, flavored with beets). Cafe East's version definitely falls into the hearty camp. Shreds of cabbage and beet and chunks of potato sit happily in a light, tomato-based, sweet, sour and spicy broth, spiked with nearly whole peppercorns. With a spoonful of sour cream for garnish, it's warming and soul-satisfying.

Russian food is not especially designed for dieters, as the three types of dumplings on Cafe East's menu prove. The beef pelmeny ($4.99) are small, ravioli-size dumplings stuffed with a tasty ground-beef filling; the cheburek ($4.99) are more like Cornish pasties, large turnovers, filled with a savory shredded beef and fried to a golden turn; and vareniky ($4.99) are half-moon-shaped boiled dumplings filled with seasoned mashed potatoes and sautéed onions. All are served with sour cream, and all are delicious. They're also stuffed with enough calories to make you toss any lingering New Year's resolutions out the window.

No trip to a Russian kitchen is complete without cabbage, and Cafe East's definitive cabbage rolls are a must. Fresh, barely tender cabbage leaves are rolled into a cigar shape around a highly seasoned (more Kazakhstanian than Russian) ground-beef-and-rice mixture and served in a light tomato sauce (four to five per order, $4.99). They were so good, I ordered them twice.

The terrific soup of the day ($2.49) didn't necessarily inspire double orders, but a definite double take. I was told it was "tomato soup," which was a bit of an understatement. This version included bits of meat, still-crunchy green beans and bell peppers in a spicy tomato broth. I asked our charming waitress what it was called, and she replied, "soup of the day." That same soup made a return appearance as "lagman" ($5.99 with more meat and served over homemade noodles). (According to my New Oxford Companion to Food, the word lagman comes from the Chinese, liang mian, meaning "cold noodle." Class dismissed.) Although lagman was served with a delicious chili paste, I thought Cafe East's tomato concoction worked better as a soup.

As good as everything was, my favorite entrée was probably the chicken tabaka ($8.99). A whole Cornish hen is marinated, butterflied and pressed flat, then highly seasoned and perfectly fried. Served with a sweet and spicy walnut sauce, it's the best fried chicken in town.

The fried chicken analogy is appropriate. Cafe East, despite its big bad bear Russian pedigree, is a family restaurant, charming as a puppy. Before I ordered dessert, an adorable kid brought out a small slice of cake, saying, "My father said to try this. If you like it, tell me how many slices you want." It was a walnut, poppy-seed spice cake, and I loved it. A few minutes later the owner wandered out of the kitchen, his arm proudly around his son. "Did you like the cake? My son made it himself." Sigh.

What can I say? I liked not only the cake but also the restaurant -- very much. It was worth two failed attempts to make it there. I urge you to try it yourself, quickly, before the foodies in search of the newest ethnic discovery find it themselves.

But do yourself a favor. Call first.

Cafe East, 1910 Wilcrest, (713)266-5838.

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Dennis Abrams