Portland Monthly's Cuisine of the Year 2014: Kachka and DaNet's Russian Party

With vastly different approaches, a veteran Portland chef and two newcomers to the scene are creating a people’s party you want to join.

By Karen Brooks October 9, 2014 Published in the November 2014 issue of Portland Monthly

Top row: Kackha’s drinking menu revives borscht, smoked fish, and Lenin school banners. Bottom row: At DaNet’s monthy pop-up dinners, chef Vitaly Paley reclaims his Russian roots, majestically.

Kachka tastes like a feisty Russian babushka’s cooking—with Pussy Riot crashing the dinner table. This is where you twirl through stroganoff laden with crispy beef tongue and sip on a juicy “Pinko Commie Bastard” under the watchful gaze of Lenin, as Soviet music wafts through the air. 

Your hosts for the night are Bonnie Morales, riffing on family recipes and a culinary diploma, and her husband, Israel, whose sprawling drink list makes room for curated vodka flights. Delivering the goods with informed cheer: a phalanx of strapping, blue-eyed waiters. Davai!

Begin with at least three vodka infusions—tingly snorts of horseradish, dill flower, and candy-grassy zubrovka. They’re perfect to toast over Kachka’s zakuski, upgraded drinking foods best expressed in a geometric spread of Russian lardo, pickle chunks, razored garlic, hot mustard, and honey. Next, dig in to meat-filled Siberian pelmeni dumplings, and pony up a few extra rubles for the “fancy” broth—a strange luxury of headcheese meatiness. 

Smetana, the kitchen’s delicately tanged version of sour cream, is melted into saucy magic over tvorog vareniki dumplings, or churned into a euphoric butter that anchors a fish board of cured delights. There are bumps here and there, like the fried sour cherry dumplings tougher than a tank tire. But a final sip of Russian theater—stiff tea and brandy called Baba Sima’s Tonic, flamed tableside with a bedtime story—does cure all.

Dining at DaNet

Across the river at the Portland Penny Diner, another meal unfolds in five epic courses. Once a month, the sandwich shop morphs into DaNet, the shared meeting ground, at last, for Russia’s forgotten kitchens and Oregon’s farm-to-table ethos. Whispers, kisses, and conversation play out over candle-dripping tables, every inch covered with sumptuous soul food, as Russian pop blares from a turntable. It feels like a bar mitzvah, a Polish wedding, and The Sopranos, all at once. 

Who better to host us than James Beard Award–winning chef Vitaly Paley, reading aloud from Anton Chekhov, whose heroic character “hiccups with joy” in anticipation of blini: golden pancakes “airy and plump, like the shoulder of the merchant’s daughter.” The reading sets a giddy mood. Paley is using muscle memory to reconnect with the food of his youth, cooked in a one-room apartment in Belarus. Silky smoked salmon, Russian wild plum jam, and an embarrassment of pickled riches like green tomatoes, half sours, chanterelles, and blackberries stand ready to pile. The evening swings through rabbit soup for the soul, Georgian dumplings, and majestic piroshki perfuming the air with the sweet musk of rabbit liver. And a little rooftop honey to sweeten fried cheese doughnuts. 

We thought we knew this revered lord of Paley’s Place and Imperial. But DaNet is something else, a pop-up portal to a lost way of life, reborn in our backyard.

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