One of Petrushka's tasty salads. Photo by Dhanraj Emanuel.
Restaurant Petrushka2312 El Cajon Blvd.North Park619-298-4007
At just three months old, Petrushka is much less lived-in (and scribbled-upon) than its neighbor, Russian restaurant Pomegranate. And while they share some ties (Pomegranate's owner is one of the partners in Petrushka), the new restaurant is representative of more Central and Eastern European cuisines, offering signature dishes from all the countries whose flags hang on the cozy eatery's walls.
Like with Pomegranate, I enjoy the salads best, though be forewarned that if you ask for a sampler plate, you'll likely end up with a $25 dish. On Thursday nights, however, the restaurant slashes 25 percent off all appetizers and mains. The chalkboard sign in the window advertising the deal says it's only valid if you pay in rubles, but don't worry, they'll take your cold, hard American cash, too. Make sure that you do bring cash, since the restaurant currently doesn't accept anything else.
I'm mad for eggplant, and the delicious Serbian eggplant salad showcases it well, in a velvety confit of eggplant cubes in herb- and garlic-infused olive oil. I'm beet-crazy, too, so the tangy chopped salad of pickled ruby beets and crunchy red onion can count me as a fan. Of the mayo-based salads, a chicken salad with mushrooms and lots of dill is tasty, as is the Latvian cheese salad, which looks like creamy egg or potato salad but is actually two kinds of shredded cheese mixed with garlic and spices.
The Odessa salad is listed on the menu as something that “cannot be described but should be tried.” As a public-service announcement, I'll tell you that it's just mashed and roasted eggplant with a texture similar to baba ghanoush, only without the tahini paste for flavor.
Also on the starter list are pirozhki, baked buns made from yeast dough and stuffed with fillings that range from cabbage to potato and cheese or meat. They're alright, but I sure wish I hadn't heard the telltale ding of a microwave just before they were brought out of the kitchen.
Petrushka's chef is originally from the Ukraine but spent many years running a kitchen in the Israeli army, so perhaps that's you'll see couscous is one of the main sides here, although what's served are not the pasta-like pearls known as Israeli couscous, which I love, but, rather, the more commonly seen, small grains of semolina that do a fine job of absorbing the savory juices of some of the saucier entrées, like Hungarian goulash, a hearty stew of tender beef, tomatoes and onions. Another Hungarian specialty, chicken paprikash, is not served as traditionally—I've had it as a braised dish, with a paprika-spiced sauce enriched with sour cream. Here, it's a quarter-chicken, dry roasted with a spice rub and served with a side of dilled mashed potatoes.
There are more than 40 different bottles of Eastern European beer and wine offered, all lined up on shelves against a back wall. No official list has been printed, but our waiter, a nice young Russian guy with a swagger that straddled the line between playful and pesky, was pretty good at helping us select which to try based on our style preferences. I went with Zywiec, a smooth, Baltic-style porter with great balance between malt and hops and delicious mocha flavor that I'd had before and really enjoyed.
Most of the menu at Petrushka is stick-to-your-ribs, warm-you-from-the-inside-out kind of food, not best suited for the sweltering nights of summer but perfect for the nippy evenings of late. When temperatures rise, a couple of the salads should do me just fine. They'd make a great light meal alongside the bread that comes on a wooden board with a little dish of herb butter and a couple of bottles of beer from that wall.
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