Feeling the Lyubov' at Moscow Deli
While I need to check out Russian Gourmet ("but Lake Forest is so far away!"), my needs for Russian goods have been met since I moved to these fair orange acres by Moscow Deli.
The place is 80% market, 20% prepared food. This is where North Countians can head for tvoróg, the smooth white cheese known as Quark in German, for butter (no disrespect toward my forebears, but the best butter in Europe comes not from Denmark or Normandy, but from Mother Russia), for huge bottles of the fermented-bread drink known as kvass.
You're looking for sausage? Moscow Deli has four dozen types. You need an obscure kind of Estonian pickled asparagus? It's available in jars there. Ceylon tea blended especially to make zavárka (tea concentrate, traditionally diluted 10:1 with boiling water from a samovar)? No problem.
Also full of that taste of home (if your home happened to be in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn) are the gólubtsy, fat cabbage rolls stuffed with meat, rice and gentle spices and simmered in tomato sauce. Resist the urge to order two; these are meaningful rolls. If you're still hungry, order a couple of drániki--potato pancakes. Don't forget the sour cream.
You'll be asked if you want them with fruit (s frúktami) or with sour cream (so smetánoy). Fruit may be tempting, but be Russian for a minute and just order the sour cream, because Russian sour cream is like no other dairy product in the world, and this is a perfect way to try it, with its pourable, off-white tang lapped lovingly over the sweet, smooth filling inside a buckwheat crêpe.
If blintzes aren't your thing, get your dessert to go: go to the freezer case and buy a package of varéniki, small wheat dumplings filled with sweetened pie cherries. At $7.99 a bag, they aren't cheap, but they are delicious. Splurge for a small container of smetána (that's that sour cream), then go home, boil the dumplings, pour the included cherry syrup over them, dollop with smetána and enjoy; it's even a surprisingly healthy dessert. Or splurge on a slice of napoleon, a big chunk of poppy-seed pieróg, or head back to the freezer for a cardboard-wrapped nugget of morózhenoye (Russian ice cream--the Dadu brand is the one to get), which is richer and creamier than most ice creams.
Anyone who's ever been to Russia knows that service is eleventh on a list of ten important characteristics for a business to have, which is why I was genuinely stunned at the warmth and the kindness displayed by the women who run the deli. Being greeted with zdrávstvuitye (hello) instead of chto vy khotítye (what do you want)? Suggestions and free samples if you're dithering? Smiles, for the love of Lenin? Nearly unheard of in Russia but everyday occurrences at Moscow Deli.
Their English has definitely improved since I started going, but if you are asking specific questions about ingredients or looking for suggestions, you may fare better with a Russian speaker.
This is a place that is sorely needed in north OC, and I've yet to take someone who didn't fall in love with it instantly. Next time you're shopping at IKEA, skip the meatballs in the cafeteria and head down Harbor for a sandwich or some borscht instead.
Ready? All together now: