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Like a Phoenix, Rising From the Ukraine
by Neil deMause
June 6, 2001
Editor's Note: The author is talking about a Ukrainian restaurant. The actual capital of the Ukraine is not closed, but many feel it was in bad taste when they adopted the slogan "Kiev: Over 2.6 Million Served."
Part 1: An Interesting Discovery
I was right down the street from Moishe's, I realized, and decided it was a good time to stop in for a black-and-white cookie. Not that it ever isn't a good time for a black-and-white cookie, but it's especially so when one is right down the street from Moishe's.
En route, I girded my thoughts as I approached The Place Where Kiev Was. Six months in mourning, and it still hurt. No more all-day breakfasts of potato pancakes, pierogis, kasha varnishkes, split pea soup and challah, the traditional meal that Ukrainians, but for speaking Ukrainian, would undoubtedly have called "der Starchfest." The East Village is riddled with Eastern European diners, to be sure, but the remaining ones had all proven sadly inadequate: KK's had great pierogi but dry and tasteless kasha, Veselka had nifty veggie stuffed cabbage but not much else, and B&H had excellent kasha and soups but a seating area the size of a Manhattan thimble. To properly recreate Kiev's wide range of good dishes and its spacious, unhurried dining area, I'd have to wander a 15-block radius, sampling one dish at a time from a half-dozen restaurants. Which was a thought, but how would I keep from spilling the apple sauce?
So it was that I approached the infamous corner, glaring at the new awning that festooned Kiev's familiar aluminum facade. I peered angrily in through Kiev's windows, trying to discern what new establishment had replaced the diner of my dreams, thanks to the whims of an owner tired of the restaurant business (the official story) or to the money-grubbing realities of the New York real estate market (the official conspiracy theory). I spied tablesa restaurant, wouldn't you know. Probably with some frou-frou name likeyes, exactly like "The Zoo Cafe," I thought, as I spotted it on the facade. The sort of place that would serve
"The Same Menu As 'Kiev' Had," read the sign. As if for proof, there in the window was Kiev's old menu, with a script "Zoo" xeroxed in wherever the Kiev name had appeared.
Okay, this I didn't expect.
Cautiously, I poked my head in. The decor was new, the seating arrangement altered to make one big room from Kiev's old warren of narrow corridors. But the clientelestudents, local workers, presumably a smattering of old Ukrainianslooked the same. I checked the bound menu, fearing a bait and switch: identical but for the name change, down to such revisionist oddities as "Zoo's Famous Kasha Varnishkes."
I'd just eaten lunch, so instead I headed next door to Moishe's for a black-and-white and the scoop. My initial inquiry was met with a look of "We don't have 'How long has that restaurant been there?' on the menu" incomprehension from the counter worker, but her coworker immediately chimed in: "It's been there about a month. Same menu, just new owners. Everything they had at Kiev, they have there."
This, clearly, was going to require further investigation.
Chapter 2: In Which The Kasha Changes Its Varnishkes
And the next day, the townspeople awoke to more Rice Krispies.
Wait, that's not right. I mean:
Three of us set out the next night for the Diner That Dare Not Speak Its Name. (Calling it by its absurd new moniker was out of the question, and it hadn't earned the right to be known as the New Kiev.) It was the first day we were free for dinner, but more important, it was Thursday. At Kiev, Thursday had been pea soup day, and so our visit would serve as a test of the new place's respect for tradition.
I arrived first, waiting out front for the others beside a poster decrying the city's attempt to "demap" nearby block-long Taras Shevchenko Place. ("Don't let our Ukrainian community be destroyed!") Passersby suspiciously eyed the window-mounted menus, peered in the windows, walked off. Unable to contain my curiosity, I took a glance at the soup listings, found: "Thursday: Pea soup."
They say that my heart grew three sizes that day.
At last, Mindy and John arrived. Perusing the familiar, oversized menusthe Kiev had a knack for making its fare seem endless by listing each item under several categorieswe stole a glance at the decor: new, certainly. Different, absolutely. And yet, a certain echo of Kiev's ancient wall tiles and mounted stringed instrument (a bouzouki, I am convinced, not that I have the remotest idea what a bouzouki is) undeniably lived on in the new space, particularly in the bizarrely amateurish paintings of New York landmarks that decorated the walls and turned out to be, on closer inspection, framed murals.
I know what you're saying: Cut to the soup. That's what I would have told our waiter, but fortunately he needed no instruction. Shortly after ordering, we were delivered cups so brimming with soup that they overbrimmed, slopping onto the plates beneath with classic diner panache.
I tasted my pea soup. It tasted like pea soup. It tasted sweetly green and rich like pea soup, it had bits of carrots and unidentifiably bland herbs floating in it like pea soup, it wasneed I say it?thick as pea soup. I tore off a hunk of challah and dipped it in the pea soup. It tasted like challah dunked in pea soup. It tasted like Kiev.
More dishes arrived, and the comparisons intensified. The boiled potato pierogis were buttery as ever, accompanied as always by a pile of onions fried to within an inch of their life. The potato pancakes were perhaps a bit lighter than usualbad for the sense of nostalgia, but good for the sense of being able to eat more than one without your stomach feeling like you'd consumed a barrel of lead shot. The vegetable platter was borderline inedible, but no problem, for the vegetable platter at Kiev had always been thus.
The only disappointment, really, was the kasha varnishkes. The old kasha came smothered in mushroom gravy, but the new regime served the gravy on the side: an entire cup of gravy, enough gravy to sink a battleship, but for the small matter of a battleship likely being able to float in gravy. The gravy wasn't the problem. But the kasha"buckwheat groats," we explained to native Tennessean John, and when that elicited no further comprehension, "it's a grain, except it's not really a grain"was a bit on the dry side, and the varnishkes, known to most of the English-speaking world as bowtie pasta, were a different brand than we were accustomed to, and slightly overcooked. It wasn't badit takes a lot to make kasha varnishkes with mushroom gravy bad, though god knows KK's gives it the old college trybut it was the only part of the meal that was a little off.
Or was it? Taking another bite of the pierogis, I wondered: Are these really the same? Am I overrating them because I want this place to be Kiev reborn? Or, conversely, am I judging them too harshly? It's not, after all, like Kiev didn't have plenty of off nights. Hell, it's not like Kiev had such stellar foodits very charm was the basic pleasure of large quantities of comfort foods, simply prepared without pretension. In fact, what the hell was I doing sitting and analyzing diner pierogis as if they were the key to unlocking the secrets of the universe? Was I insane? Didn't I have better things to do with my time than to care how precisely a short-order chef had replicated the precise oiliness of his predecessor's fried potatoes?
I stared at a framed mural-painting of the Flatiron Building, took another bite of potato pancake smothered in apple sauce. It might not be Kiev, I thought, but it was a pretty damned good imitation.
Which left only the obvious question: Why go through the trouble of changing the name at all? Paying the check, I grilled the cashier for details. Had the new owners been involved with the old Kiev?
"Ah, I don't think so," he said with an apparently nervous grin. "But I know many of the staff are the same!"
Well, that narrowed that down.
Chapter 3: Chicken Caught in Flamewar Crossfire
This part, I figured, would be easy. I'm a writer by trade, and for me writing, perversely, consists in large part of sitting in front of a computer and looking up crap on the Web. Clueless waitstaff, I figured, would be no obstacle for my investigative might!
First stop was my preferred destination for all food queries: Chowhound.com, a site founded by the painstakingly unpretentious gourmand Jim Leff, which among its many attractions features busy bulletin boards devoted to local cuisines in several major cities. Popping over to the Manhattan board (yes, there's a separate Outer Boroughs board as well), I posted notice of Kiev's startling rebirth, and a query as to whether anyone knew the reason behind the name change.
I got back a scathing rebuke from a chowhound who had eaten at Kiev and hated it, going on at great length about how it was no match for the famed Lower East Side diners of yore. ("Yore" seemingly having ended sometime in the Gay Nineties.) But none of the Chowhounds had a clue as to mystery of the name, or if they did, they weren't telling.
Okay, so much for the experts. Time to bring out the big computational guns, I thought as I fired up Google and typed in "Kiev and Zoo." A brief churn of the fileserver gears, and Google was ready to illuminate me with: "Elephant tusk-ache a 7-ton problem for the Kiev Zoo."
Clearly this Kiev Zoo mystery was more convoluted than I had at first suspected.
The Internet having vanquished me, I had no choice but to return to the real world for my research efforts. But while I had no trouble returning time and again to Kiev, or Zoo, or whatever, somehow it never seemed the right moment to clothesline a waitress and grill her on the origin's of her employer's name. (Not to mention that my investigative zeal tends to get a bit logy after two large potato pancakes in apple sauce.)
Finally, though, I decided to make one more direct assault on the Kiev massif. It was a day when behind the cash register stood the raven-hairedI'd never describe someone as "raven-haired" under normal circumstances, but this is someone who can only be described as "raven-haired"the raven-haired longtime waitress who I'd decided, by virtue of the fact that I usually see her doing nothing more than lounging around in street clothes (the waitresses at Kiev/Zoo lounge around in uniforms), was the manager.
So, I began my now-rehearsed routine, why the name change? The food is the same, the staff is the same, the homemade challah that comes with the soup and that you can buy to take home (as advertised by a sign on a crusty old loaf sitting atop the milk dispenser) is the same, everything but the decor is the same, and even that's the same in its own way. Why, then, the new name?
"That is a difficult question," she said.
You mean the owner didn't tell you?
"Not only doesn't he tell us why he changed the name," she said, with a tone of exasperation, whether at me or the owner I couldn't tell, "he also doesn't tell us why this new name, 'Zoo.' No one knows."
And that was that. I could have asked her more, such as who exactly had been responsible for the menu's renaming of the Chicken Kiev to "Chicken Zoo." But some questions, perhaps, are best left unanswered.
Neil deMause is editor of the zine HERE, and a writer for various other places you've never heard of. His tastes in food, he has been told, run toward "unsophisticated Italian."