Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Brighton Beach Memoir (part 2)

What the Italians call la passeggiata is surely one of the finest spectacles on earth, but there seem to me to be a limited number of outstanding spots on the globe in which to partake of this sublimely democratic pleasure. One of my favorites is the Piazza Navona in Rome on New Year’s Day, when the overstuffed matrons parade around the fountains in mink coats (even if the temperature is 60 degrees). There are a few great hangouts in Central Park, and of course any European café on a well-trafficked thoroughfare affords the pleasures of what my father called simply “people watching.”

But for the sheer variety of humanity in all its full-blown lunacy, nothing quite compares with the boardwalk at Brighton Beach.

It’s around six p.m., on one of the few rare and balmy nights in this hellhouse of a summer, when Dave and I amble along between the broad stretch of sand and the restaurants, looking for the Tatiana Grill ( In the far distance people are swimming in the waters between Brighton and Breezy Point; in the near, neatly uniformed waiters beckon to passers-by to take a table and sample their fare.

When we find the place, which looks like it's been transported intact from the Riviera, we’re shown to a table right at the edge of the boardwalk and promptly served a carafe of vodka with two small snifter-type glasses and a bowl of ice. And then we just sit for the next three hours and soak it up.

There are Orthodox Jewish couples in yarmulkes and headscarves; Indian women in gorgeous saris; exquisitely dressed Russian girls teetering along in stiletto heels; fat couples and elderly couples; little kids and just about every type of canine known to humankind. Right in front of us, for more than an hour, a handsome hunk hangs with his friends while cradling in his arms a hairless cat of the breed known as a Sphinx. This turns out to be an irresistible babe magnet, as just about every cute young thing ventures closer to admire the wizened little feline. It's like using Yoda for date bait.

Farther down, a fashion shoot is in progress. A photographer and stylist and go-fers dance attendance on a skinny model with an outlandish mop of frizzy hair. She can’t be more than 18, but I’m not going to worry what her mother thinks of all this since she’s probably making more in an evening than I scrape together in a month. (Later we will see her posing again in the traffic island along Brighton Beach Avenue, a truly weird tableau, kind of like Vogue meets Dante’s Inferno.)

Still stuffed with liver and dumplings, we don’t have much of an appetite but order some pickled herring to keep the vodka company. We decide to return later to sample more of the menu, which includes traditional Russian staples like stroganoff and chicken kiev, as well as more exotic fare along the lines of foie gras with wineberry sauce, baby lamb tongue, and cold or hot green borscht. The restaurant doesn’t seem to mind a whit that our food intake is skimpy. We sit there till well after sundown, and no one badgers us to order more or leave.

For about 30 bucks, this beats dinner and a movie any day.
IF YOU GO: See the previous post. You should be up to page 123 in War and Peace by now.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Brighton Beach Memoir (part 1)

“Well, that’s a smart thing to be carrying in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood,” says Dave when I pull out the cloth carry-all I’d brought for shopping in the Russian community of Brighton Beach. It’s green, red, and white with Arabic letters, a freebie from a press conference for a new museum in Abu Dhabi.

“But, look, it has a star of David,” I say, pointing to a little blue shape.

“Look again, kiddo,” says Dave. “It has only five points.”

So much for my ethnic sensitivity. An almost lifelong New Yorker, I really should know better. I fold up the bag and shove it back in my purse.

Our end goal, on our first trip to Brighton, is the boardwalk about two city blocks from the subway stop, but it is only 3.30 in the afternoon and we decide to shop first. On the eastern end of Brighton Beach Avenue, I am drawn to a display of gaudy clothing in a store absurdly called Via Veneto. There are bags and shoes and dresses in the window, not particularly stylish by Madison Avenue standards, but bright and cheerful and, I am hoping, reasonably priced. As we enter, Dave greets the slender young salesgirl in Russian while I make a beeline for a rack of blouses. I peer at the tag on a dark-blue number, trimmed with little sequins, and I can’t help but gasp: $375! I look at another, on sale: $225!

“Would you like to see some dresses?” the young woman asks as I am sheepishly edging for the door, too frightened even to look more closely at the table of handbags.

How do you say, Hell no in Russian? I am about to ask Dave, but he is picking up on my cues, nodding a polite good-bye as he follows me out.

As an antidote to sticker shock, we head for a supermarket we had passed earlier, the Brighton Bazaar, and I am immediately delighted with the sight of a well-stocked produce section, filled with affordable fruits and vegetables ($1.99 for a pint of raspberries, $1.49 a pound for Jersey beefsteak tomatoes). We stroll past salad bars and steaming trays of cooked food, but I will tell you more about this in a future post, because after about ten minutes of wandering the aisles, we are both so hungry we decide to find a restaurant Dave has searched out earlier.

As we head toward the Café Glechik, we pass another clothing store, offering possibly one of the scariest displays of women’s garments I have ever seen. Floating in the window are seven-foot-tall mannequins, approximately the color of dried cement, dressed in outlandish black-and-white garments….or are they costumes? Who would wear these on any occasion but Halloween, or am I betraying my ethnic insensitivity again? We stare for a minute or two, transfixed, but no way am I setting foot in that place.

A couple of doors down is the Café Glechik, a narrow, inviting, and spotlessly clean little place, neither truly a café in the European sense nor a coffee shop ( The walls are decorated with Ukrainian costumes, musical instruments, and knickknacks, since the cuisine reflects the port city of Odessa.

Dave wants me to try beef tongue, but I just can’t go there stone cold sober, and we instead order Siberian pel'meni (dumplings), chopped liver, and Perrier since Dave advises against the Russian sparkling water, something called Borzhumi. The waiter brings a basket of white and dark bread; the latter is like nothing I’ve tasted before: both chewy and moist, with a hint of molasses and an almost spongy texture. Immediately I am slathering it with unsalted butter. When the liver arrives, dusted with chopped egg, I add a generous layer of that too, but it has a sweetish flavor, and is nothing like what I’ve been served in the good Jewish homes in which I am inexplicably welcome.

The dumplings, though, are fabulous. They arrive in a darling little glazed earthenware crock and are approximately the size of walnuts, with a nugget of mystery meat enfolded inside a dough that has the firmness and texture of al dente pasta. Dave shows me how to eat them Russian style: with a dollop of sour cream and a splash of vinegar. “These are the best we’ve had so far,” he says.

“I would say it’s a toss-up between these and Shanghai Joe’s.”

Thoroughly stuffed, we amble down Brighton Avenue, past specialty stores selling brightly wrapped candies, caviar, and many different kids of coffee, tea, and smoked fish. In every block, it seems, there is a cheerful, sometimes nearly toothless, Russian matron standing outside, behind tables of pastries filled with chicken, cheese, or fruit. These are a bit like knishes, but flakier and delightfully greasy. One on top of dumplings and bread fulfills my carb quota for the week. We pass a shop selling fur coats in July and pharmacies where staples like aspirin and laundry detergent are two to four dollars cheaper than in Manhattan.

Occasionally we spot a beautiful young Russian woman, leggy as a ballerina and with cheekbones like origami. One of them, standing outside a jewelry store, snaps at Dave in Russian as he tries to take a photo of the goods on display. Later he explains the exchange: She says it’s illegal to take photos like that. His reply: The hell it is.

But enough with the window shopping. The sun is moving past the yardarm and it’s time for vodka and the beach.

IF YOU GO: Get the Q train to the Brighton stop. The trip from Times Square takes approximately 45 minutes, so this is a very good opportunity to start reading War and Peace. And you will want to come back many times, so there's a chance you might finish the book in your lifetime.