May 17 2013 03:42 PM

But the new Golden Hill eatery could use a little fine-tuning here and there

Vareniki, Kafe Sobaka’s potato-and-mushroom dumplings
Photo by Mina Riazi

Kafe Sobaka's humor-spiked menu brings together Russian, Georgian and California cuisines. The cabbage-and-berries salat vesna is "rare as chastity" and the derevenskaya skovorodka's fried potatoes are so tantalizing that they apparently warrant violence: "For this dish I could easily kill my older brother." The witty voice behind the menu most likely belongs to owner Mark Djugashvili, who you might spot sitting near the entrance of the newly opened Golden Hill eatery.

Kafe Sobaka (2469 Broadway) sits on a wide residential street between a Cricket Wireless and a string of houses. Inside, the restaurant is cluttered but cozy. Chunky samovars line a window ledge, and framed posters adorn the walls. A few retired instruments—a flute, a trumpet—join the lively mishmash. In the evenings, the restaurant glows with the warm, yellow light of all its stubby table lamps.

I was observing the décor when our server slid one dish of bread and another of herb butter onto the table. For some reason, I expect sturdy, belly-filling fare from dimly lit places that are packed with wooden tables and chairs. And, unfortunately, the bread at Kafe Sobaka was not the puffed up, craggy-edged kind. Instead, the four crustless slices were thin and just OK. Though the butter eased the bread out of its lackluster state, the duo didn't completely win me over.

The pkhali came next. Described as a well-known Kavkaz Mountain appetizer, the vegetable-and-walnut mash tasted best with a hunk of bread. That's because the pkahli's sharp, garlicky zing complemented the humdrum carb. Together, the two tasted swell, proving that, yes, in fact, opposites do attract. 

Kafe Sobaka's vareniki, or potato dumplings, are a solid appetizer choice. When the crescent-shaped pillows arrived, accompanied by a little dish of yogurt, I could tell that they'd been prepared only minutes before. The dough was supple and chewy and thick enough to hold together a savory potato-and-mushroom filling. A quick dip in the peppery yogurt lent the morsels a nice, creamy coolness. 

Most of the entrées are meat-focused medleys like the kuchmachi—chicken liver fried with oven-roasted garlic—and the zharenniyi yazyik, beef tongue wrapped in herbs. Vegetarian and vegan options, like the respublika kalifornia—Sobaka's spin on the French-dip sandwich—speckle the menu. 

I settled for a plate of tangy chicken called chakhokhbili. The tender meat was hidden beneath a mix of lemon, tomato, garlic and herbs. The dish was refreshing and light, a perfect follow-up to the dumplings. 

A wise woman once said the ideal ending to any meal is a scoop of ice cream. I've always agreed wholeheartedly with that notion, no matter how stuffed I might be. Luckily, Kafe Sobaka's menu flaunts a wide variety of homemade ice creams, from honey vanilla to black tea to Georgian yogurt. The Turkish coffee was my No. 1 choice, and the frosty treat arrived in a slender blue glass. I didn't mind that the dessert was more like an Italian granita—a semi-frozen, slushy-like sweet—than ice cream. It was a thirst-quenching finish to a robust meal, one that I would repeat again for another round of those chubby, flavor-packed dumplings. 

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