January 29, 2009
There are certain dining experiences that just make you feel like a New Yorker. Sitting at Veselka’s counter sipping coffee and dipping chalah into a bowl of soup exemplifies this notion 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Originally opened as a candy store in the mainly Ukrainian East Village of the 1950s, “Veselka,” Ukrainian for “rainbow,” has been spreading cheer amidst an ever-changing neighborhood by sticking to its roots: authentic and affordable Ukrainian food in an unhurried atmosphere.
Wisdom teaches us to stick with the food that made Veselka famous. The burger may be delicious, but read on to find out which three Ukrainian dishes NYC Food Guy always includes on a trip to Veselka…
Mushroom Barley Soup (Bowl $4.50, Cup $3.50)
I’d be hard pressed to name another first course that’s as simple, satisfying and hearty as Veselka’s mushroom barley soup. And this is coming from an eater who’s not a big fan of mushrooms and had never eaten mushroom barley soup prior to this Fall. Now I can’t even consider a meal at Veselka without ordering this soup as my starter or even my entire meal. After buttering and dipping the two pieces of thinly sliced chalah which accompany my bowl of soup (only one slice with a cup), I fall into a tunnel-like trance of soup induced euphoria, letting the hearty mixture of plump barley and finely chopped mushroom and carrot overtake my senses. Intense, I know. But there’s something amazing about the fact that I find such simple pleasure in a dish my Russian and Polish ancestors once ate. Such is the power food possesses.
Fried Potato Pierogies (4 for $5.75, 7 for $8.50)
If you enjoy knishes and you enjoy dumplings (fried or steamed), then you’ll enjoy pierogies. Seasonal specials join Veselka’s 7 standard varieties of pierogie, each served with a side of bitter sauteed onions, but I stick with the classic potato, fried not boiled, and pay an extra $0.50 for sour cream and apple sauce, dipping between the two, creating a delicious confluence of flavor between the sweet apple sauce, the rich sour cream and the peppery potato filling.
You can mix pierogie varieties to create your own sampler but I enjoy the slightly spicy potato because it contrasts the sweetness of the cheese blintze with raspberry sauce I always order.
Cheese Blintze with Raspberry Sauce
(1 for $6.50, 2 for $10.75)
Prior to trying Veselka’s cheese blintze, every blintze I’d tried looked more like a mini grilled burrito than the airy crepe-like creation Veselka offers.
The delicate, confectioners sugar-coated pancake gives way to a sweet farmers cheese filling which embodies a faint lemon flavor. The refreshingly tart raspberry sauce combines with the sweetness in the pancake and cheese filling to provide a deliciously balanced flavor. Spoil your taste buds by alternating bites of the raspberry-topped blintze with the sour cream and apple sauced-dipped peppery potato pierogies (say that 5 times fast).
Veselka’s Weekend Conundrum
A table can fetch a wait of 15-30 minutes on weekends stretching from breakfast until late afternoon. As a result, service can be a bit harried and soup arrives at the same time as pierogies and blintzes, thereby rushing the delicate flavor progression I’ve grown to love. The good thing is that Veselka is open 24 hours, seven days a week and aside from Saturday and Sunday, getting a table or a seat at the counter is usually a smooth venture.