Monday, September 16, 2013

An Evening in Yekaterinburg


The entrance.
In Yekaterinburg, I ate one night at a restaurant called Dacha (pronounced Dahsha). The name refers to the country homes that are so popular with Russians. They range from very modest wooden cabins, clustered along streets that are really exurban rather than rural in character, to exclusive estates. Dachas have significant meaning within Russian culture, representing simplicity and tradition. In many ways, they are similar to American summer homes, but they are much more common, and, given the relative uniformity of the Russian landscape, their setting is comfortably familiar.


Due to my own family’s tradition of getting away to the north woods, not to mention my fondness for Domku, a similarly themed restaurant near my apartment in DC, Dacha appealed to me immediately when I read about it in The Lonely Planet. I saved it for my last night in Yekaterinburg, a splurge before embarking once more on the train. On the afternoon before the meal, I walked past the restaurant, which occupied the first floor of a modern office building. It didn’t look like much from the outside, but the neighborhood was promising, being well away from the most commercialized part of the center city. Dacha is just south of Ul Lenina, a boulevard traversed by trams and bisected by a leafy walkway that leads from the City Hall to a square at the western edge of downtown. Many of the buildings, two-story ornate brick affairs, are survivors from the nineteenth century, and even the big old Soviet apartment buildings have homey touches around the windows that soften their austere facades. The neighborhood might as well have been somewhere in Central Europe, but here I was on the cusp of Asia.

When I arrived at Dacha to eat, I was quickly taken by the d├ęcor, which is wooden, simple, and mismatched. A smattering of rustic objects from the mid-twentieth century lay around the various rooms, no doubt designed to evoke nostalgia among older Russians. The lighting was pleasantly low, too. My waiter, a young, eager chap, placed flags at every occupied table according to the nationality of the occupants, an odd if friendly gesture that some of the other diners, all Europeans, snickered at.


The menu had all sorts of options (beefsteaks for the trio of Italians to my right), but I chose whatever seemed most authentic to the setting, and my selections, I was pleased to observe, met with approval from the waiter. I began with a glass of prosecco, accompanied by bruschetta, topped with goat cheese and raspberries – a special for the evening. It was a simple combination of flavors but one I had not encountered before, fresh and substantial enough to take the edge off my appetite. Like the following courses, it was served on a sliver of slate.


Next, I had what turned out to be the main course, though the menu referred to the dish as a salad. Half-sour cucumbers and pickled mushrooms joined warm fingerling potatoes, garnished with salt, pepper, butter, mayonnaise (on the mushrooms) and liberal amounts of dill. Some might find the dish bland; I delighted in the understated flavors and the contrast in the earthy, crunchy, and slick textures. And, to the side, I had a bacon and onion pierozkhi, which was small but also tasty.


Next came a cold summer soup. The liquid itself was only water, filled with cucumber, onion, chives, ham, and a couple other ingredients I have forgotten. In addition to the bowl, the slate came with three small vessels containing sour cream, mayonnaise, and ginger paste. As the diner mixes these ingredients into the soup, he can achieve the desired proportions. The overall effect was cool, crunchy, and rich.

For dessert, my server tried to convince me to try some Russian cake, but I was very full after the last of the soup, so I chose mint sorbet in a strawberry sauce, along with a pot of tea. I could barely finish but savored the sweet flavors while lingering over my journal. Some of the other diners were worth observation, particularly a Russian family in an adjacent room. One of them, a thirtyish woman, was clearly English – the first native speaker I’d encountered since leaving Moscow five days before. She was minding two young children, while the father and what I took to be an older daughter sat and chatted as they waited for their food. As I watched, I realized that the older daughter was in fact the man’s wife – it’s not unusual to for Russian couples to be separated by a decade or two – and the husband, a plump white-haired fellow, was clearly rich. The Englishwoman must have been an aupair, hired for her facility in English.


Eventually, I left and instead of heading straight back to the hotel, wandered down to the west end of Ul Lenina, enjoying the fading light (it was getting on towards 10, at this point). A pink tram trundled past at one point. As the city lights came on, they lit up some of the most prominent buildings, deepening the blue of the walls. In this light, the stature of Lenin, across from the city hall, seemed a familiar, friendly landmark. 

City hall.

Across the street.

Walkway in the middle of Ul Lenina.

I never figured out what this building is.

An old pharmacy.

The central post office. It had an internet cafe and thus was the scene of my first blog post from the road.

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