East of the Parsley Line: Dining in Minsk
Parsley is to Austria like… maybe the bagel is to New York City? In the two train station groceries that are open on a Sunday in Vienna, one can not purchase bath tissue; but, parsley? The herb can be found even at the local petrol station market. In Minsk, however, the national herb could be dill, but that is fine by me because I like dill in the same way that I do not much care for parsley.
After walking nearly 12km on our arrival afternoon, dinner was understandably the next order of business. Food research usually consumes the lion’s share of my travel planning; for this holiday, not so much, principally because I knew I would like all but one dish, Kishka. For those not in the know, this is a “sausage” comprised of pig’s blood and grain, typically buckwheat. And it is entirely an acquired taste gross. I wrote the term in Russian on Tony’s iPhone Notes so that he could avoid it while dining with his colleagues at lunch, that is how thoughtful I am. That, and I knew he would be suffering through meals with mushrooms (which he hates), the other “parsley” of Eastern European cuisine. No reason he should endure Kishka, too.
But I digress. The cuisine options in Minsk were about what we expected: 95% Belarussian, a culinary mashup of Slavic and Ruthenian, with some flavors borrowed from Italy, Germany and French. Dishes of the “Gentry” (Belarus was once part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania) were also featured. The hotel restaurant menu offered a little bit of all of it, so that is where we, and only we, dined on our first night. Yep, just the two of us in the classically elegant restaurant that seats 120. Not awkward at all. We wondered to where the biker gang had gone for dinner as we looked around for Wes Anderson.
At home in Vienna, any table we sit down at is ours for as long as we desire, be it at Plachutta or a Hütte. On the other side of the Parsley Parallel, generally you eat and then you leave. But first we had to decode the menu. This may be a Belarusian quirk, or just something we’ve not seen before, but every dish listed was followed by a set of numbers, like 50/25/20/10/15 and so forth. The numbers, we learned, refer to the weight of each ingredient in the dish, sort of.
Once the wine question was figured out (Belarus semi-dry white), we began with a cheese plate. Three varietals of cheeses (Russian, Blue, Brynza), yet the dish was numbered 50/50/50/10/75/5. Our artfully arranged plate arrived with three cheese varietals; a decorative pat of butter (likely the 10); a cluster of dark red table grapes (probably the 75); and little party picks. But no dill.
Back to the wine. We are fans of Georgian (the country) wines, having serendipitously grabbed a couple of bottles once at a grocery store in suburban Warsaw a couple of years ago and after quaffing the first bottle, regretted not having grabbed more. Though excited to see it on the menu, when in Rome…we ordered the Belarussian. And…meh. For a semi-dry it was a little flat, but more interesting was that the label read, “Made with grapes from Spain.” Who really knows what we drank with dinner on this evening.
Speaking of dinner. Tony can not resist the meltingly tender pork-anything in this part of the world, and his “Gentry Cutlet” lived up to expectations, served with seasoned potatoes and a healthy bouquet of dill. For me, old-school potato pancakes with caviar and crème. And dill.
Like the Belarussian cuisine itself, our meal was a mélange of American expediency (without learning the life story of our wait staff); Western European portions; and French presentations.
Breakfast was served from the civil hour of 0700 (we are morning people, so this was most welcome) and on the cold board… Herring Under Fur Coat! Well, the Belarussian version of this pickled herring salad anyway, but that was enough to start what would become my 18km day off right. Tony looked at me, rolled his eyes, and took his plate of potatoes and pork cutlets (my turn to roll my eyes) to our table. The breakfast room (the restaurant) was filled with people! We figured the Harley guys had ordered room service to watch the Hunting Channel with dinner, but to where had all of the other guests gone to dine?
After breakfast I sent Tony off with a smooch and went on my way. Now, I camp (I was a Girl Scout Troop Leader for 7 years); and I will, if need be, make use of portable facilities, but my Achilles toilet is the squatter, and I know they are still the rage in this part of the world. As the lunch hour approached I began investigating eateries for their possible facilities, and bet it all on a small and folksy place I spotted that had an English-translated menu. Instinct over Internet.(It had to be, because I had no Internet.) Tourism really hasn’t caught on here, but when it was discovered I was indeed a visitor…the youthful wait staff wasted no time practicing their English. “So what do you think about our salad?” and “Do you like our lemons in your water?” Charming. Lunch was a simple salad (with dill) and ten pillowy and somehow light, meat-filled Pelmini, all of which was too delicious to have only incurred a €4 tab. (And my gamble had paid off.)
Across the street from the KGB is Vasiliki, an extremely popular restaurant it would seem, because Tony and I scored the last unreserved table at 1815, on a Monday evening. Here in this chapter I must digress again, to recall scenes from the Vienna airport prior to departure. As we were queuing to drop off our baggage a loud woman in bright clothing was shouting in German at the small group of people with her; she drew our attention, and that of others around her, as she was so out of Viennese character. The scene repeated itself in our boarding area; as we were boarding; and then again at the baggage claim in Minsk. We surmised she was the leader of this band of Austrian travelers.
Fast forward to dinner on Monday evening. Once again, a Georgian white on the wine menu! Tony ordered baked Pelmini, which looked and tasted lighter than it sounded, despite the mention of the cheese topping. On this night it was my turn to request the Gentry Pork, another spectacular preparation with grainy mustard sauce, a thick potato and greens coulis, and a small salad. With dill, but you knew that. As we were tasting and talking, a loud voice punctuated our conversation. The Leader and her Merry Travelers had arrived for their dinner reservation! Thank goodness theirs was for an inside table, and that was the last we heard from them, literally.
On the menu as a starter, one of those always-funny English translations: Assorted Lard.
Dinner Tuesday evening. While walking back to the hotel after museum-going in the afternoon (The National Art Museum was every bit worth my time. Though one as art naïve as I won’t recognize many (any?) of the artists, there is much to be said for a country so proud of its heritage and culture that they rebuilt entirely from scratch, a collection that had been looted and lost by Nazis. The careful curating meant that each piece had meaning and was worth appreciating. In one gallery the docent practically pushed me onto one of the cushions to admire what is certainly a highlight piece in their collection, while she shooed away a couple of school children and closed the gallery door for me. You won’t get that at the Louvre. Also worth appreciating were the school groups in attendance; well-mannered elementary students in their Sunday best, dutifully following their programs. PSA: even if you purchase a photo pass, the former Stasi-guard-turned-docent will yell at you when you snap.)
Back to Tuesday’s dinner. Over the previous three days in Minsk I had watched what appeared the soon-to-be grand opening of a restaurant near our hotel. On this afternoon the balloons and menu board were out, and I recognized it to be an outpost of a highly rated restaurant I had read about, Pan Khmelyu, offering traditional Belarussian dishes in a traditional setting. The staff were putting the finishing touches on the outdoor seating, so I approached and asked if there was an English menu (Da!) and then asked to make a reservation for 1800, recalling the previous night’s scene.
Tony and I were seated in the cellar and felt like we had been transported to a Babushka’s cottage in the Belarus countryside, the décor and design were so inviting. (Making reservations was a brilliant move, as the small space was filled.) Though another Georgian white was on the menu, it was sadly not available so we began with a Chilean white. Quite good, but you know how we are about our Georgian wines.
Noting the “300” next to most of the traditional dishes (finally, the Eastern Europe portion sizes we were expecting!) we opted out of a starter and just ordered from the specialties. Tony ordered Pechisto, the Belarussian term for, “Big plate of meat and potatoes, topped with bacon croutons and gravy.” I went lighter (it’s all relative) with Radzivilovsky Goulash, which was goulash atop potato pancakes, and first eaten by the Great Lithuanian Duke Jogaila. Except it was not the goulash of Central Europe; it was more like a flavorful Pot au Feu cozied up with crispy potato cakes, and was entirely worth skipping another cheese plate for.
Adjacent to us was seated a couple and their “Meter of Vodka Shots” charcuterie plate, a large wooden board piled with meats and cheeses and ringed with vodka shots (!); and by all accounts they were having fun.
Partway through our incredible dinner a woman joined them; and at some point thereafter the male in the party noted that we were speaking English and began to engage with us in his version of English. When it was further learned that our “home” is Washington, D.C. the common language of “Washington” and “Ovechkin” brought two Americans, a Russian Navy sailor (and his friend); his Polish girlfriend (and her chaperone) together for a little vodka diplomacy, much laughter, and a memorable evening.