Bonnie and Israel Morales along with their business partner, Ramzy Hattar, are on a quest to demystify one of Portland’s final frontiers in eating. In a few weeks, they will open Kachka (720 SE Grand Ave), an Eastern European-focused, small plates eatery devoted to cold zakuski (drink-friendly bites), pelmini (dumplings), and plenty of vodka.
Armed with family recipes from her Russian immigrant parents and a degree from New York’s CIA, Bonnie and her team plan to take advantage of Portland’s proclivity for tapas-style dining. She sat down with us to talk the history of Russian cuisine, her favorite Soviet shopping spots around town, and about capturing the “Russian country home” aesthetic.
Why Russian food, in Portland of all places?
There are two reasons: 1. It’s what I grew up eating 2. It is under and misrepresented.
Growing up, I was deeply embarrassed by the food I ate at home. I was so jealous of the kids at school with Lunchables and Doritos. Even in college, I recall warning boyfriends beforehand of the horrors that would be on the table at family parties.
When I started cooking professionally, I began revisiting some of the dishes I grew up with. I'd redesign them in my head using French techniques or local, seasonal product and fancy plating. You know, the usual stuff. And then I met my husband, Israel. He would eat the food my mom put on the table (the real deal) and love it. So I sort of refocused my lens and started to see what he saw. I still tinker, but I'm all about keeping the integrity of the dish.
Russian food is usually represented as being stodgy, very heavy (with lots of mayonnaise), dreary, and overcooked, with sad-looking vegetables and grey meat. It’s just misunderstood. Kholodets is a great example. It’s a dish of braised veal feet and garlic set in gelatin, and served cold with spicy mustard. Non-Russians make fun of this dish all the time, yet if you describe it as a type of aspic terrine (and that's basically what it is) it piques the interest of foodies.
You guys are about to join a very informal, booze-friendly culinary corner: you’ve got Trifecta Tavern, Dig A Pony, tacos, Thai food. Is Kachka going to be a fast-casual dining spot or a full evening of eating and drinking?
We will seamlessly offer counter service for quick lunch (starting late spring) and late-night dining while focusing on offering guests the full experience during dinner.
For lunch and late night, we are going to play around a little bit more. Some examples we are thinking about for lunch include a "Ruskie Dog" (Veal frankfurter, spicy mustard, pumpernickel bun and beet sauerkraut garnish), "Red October," a lamb meatball sub with adjika hot sauce, and an “Olivier Salad Sandwich”—a classic Russian chicken salad on rye bread.
The “full experience” is more about the style of dining. A table full of small bites like pickles and cured items to start, some warm zakuski like pelmeni or blintzes, and then a heartier main such as golubtsi (cabbage rolls) or shashlik (shish kebabs). Tea, coffee, and sweets are very important to end a Russian meal properly.
Will you be sticking to traditional Russian flavors or taking Portland-influenced liberties?
The vast majority of what we are doing comes from my mother's cooking. I've picked up lots of techniques over the years that make those dishes really “pop,” but I'm not talking about tapioca maltodextrin or any "twists." It's honest food. For dinner many nights growing up, I had boiled beef tongue with caramelized onions. At Kachka, we confit grass-fed beef tongue in tallow for about 15 hours, sear it until crispy, and serve it alongside a sweet onion sauce.
Russia doesn't have a really robust cocktail heritage, so we do get creative there. Israel developed a really impressive bar program that I hope will get lots of interest. I guess beet infused Fernet Branca qualifies as "Portland-influenced liberties!”
Where do you source hard-to-find Russian ingredients in Portland?
My favorite spot is Imperial Euro Market on SE Powell and 111th. The owner, Anatoly is so helpful and accommodating. But, be prepared for a full immersion experience (i.e. very little to no English).
Why do you think Russian food, or Eastern European food in general, hasn’t caught on in Portland?
Russian food suffers from a few maladies. First, food supply was very disjointed in the USSR. Many staple products were rarely available or only available to an elite class. The quality of products also suffered. The resulting dishes were a little lackluster.
At the same time, Jewish refugees (like my parents) started leaving in droves in the ’70s and ’80s and assimilated to American life. While they still prepared the food they grew up with at home, outwardly they were encouraged to disown anything Soviet (again, it was the cold war era—being a Pinko wasn't exactly popular). Also—and this is obviously a gross generalization—being a cook was never viewed very favorably in Russia. Engineering and the fine arts were your options. My grandmother still doesn't understand what I do.
The other part is that a lot of the foods are really best enjoyed at home amongst family and friends. The traditional (appetizer-main-dessert) format at formal restaurants does a disservice to many ethnic foods. The public's familiarity and embrace of shared plates helps us tremendously.
And lastly, the Russian restaurants that do exist in the states are pretty intimidating to outsiders. Even I feel out of place.
You describe your aesthetic as “Russian Country Home.” What does that look like?
It's hard to describe! One really unique feature of the exteriors of these Russian Country homes is the very ornate window frames, or nalichniki. We asked the crafty folks at ADX make us our own really beautiful nalichniki. I spent a lot of time pouring over wallpaper and fabric samples with my mother to pick out patterns that reminded her of her childhood home. In addition to a region, we are also trying to pinpoint a time period, so there's a bit of Soviet nostalgia thrown in for good measure.