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.

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