Dishing up hearty food of Ukraine until it's time for dessert

September 24, 1993|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Restaurant Critic

Irina's Cafe

Where: 3200 Barclay St.

Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday

Credit cards accepted: None

Features: Ukrainian food

Non-smoking section? No

Call: (410) 889-1502

Prices: Around $10 for a full meal

***

Here are some of the reasons Irina Barshay, a native of Kiev, decided five years ago to open a catering business and cafe specializing in Ukrainian food:

"I felt that Baltimoreans had no knowledge of Eastern European cuisine other than Polish.

"I wanted to put my little country on the map. I didn't succeed. Chernobyl did.

"I wanted to feed people. Food is such an easy thing to share.

"I had a huge collection of Depression glass I wanted to use."

So she opened Unlimited Range at Barclay and 32nd streets, with one table -- which rapidly expanded to three, and has now become six. The name changed to Irina's Cafe and Unlimited Range Gourmet Catering. Many of her regulars, Ms. Barshay says, think of it as Irina's living room -- a place where you're as likely to see someone reading a book as eating kulebiaka.

But make no mistake about it. In spite of the funkiness, this is a rare example of an amateur operation that turns out good food and does it in a timely fashion. Of course, it's something of a do-it-yourself operation. You start at the counter and pick out your meal from any number of cellophane-covered dishes. Each costs $3 or $4; you'll want to get two or three of them. If you order coffee or Russian tea, you fetch it yourself from the large urns on the side. Then you sit and wait while the food is reheated; a waitress brings it to your table.

This is the sort of food that actually improves with reheating -- food that's been prepared with long, slow simmering. The one exception was the kulebiaka, the puff pastry layered with seasoned cabbage and grated carrots. Reheating left the pastry a little soggy, although the dish had a good flavor. (Just about everything that comes out of Irina's kitchen does.)

Best of anything we tried was the Georgian chicken. An order is two chicken legs, fall-off-the-bone tender, in an addictively good tomato-based sauce. You might have it with the sprightly chickpea and corn salad, seasoned with cumin. The food tends to look the same -- a sort of uniform yellow and brown -- but the flavors are remarkably diverse. You can have traditional potato pancakes with sour cream (a bit greasy for my taste) or a pleasant sort of vegetarian stew of eggplant, tomatoes and carrots. The only dish that didn't work was the borscht, heavily flavored with dill and almost too peppery to eat.

Irina's has discovered what a lot of ethnic restaurants around here have: Baltimoreans are willing to be adventuresome throughout the meal until they get to dessert. Then they're delighted to be offered something as American as apple pie. Pie, in fact, is a specialty of Irina's Cafe; there must have been half a dozen varieties the night we ate there. Lime pie with shaved chocolate and a crisp, flaky crust was almost spectacular -- if the baker hadn't added pineapple to it. It came with a spoonful of softly whipped, unsweetened heavy cream.

Remember, the food's good and the place is wonderfully down home, but it ain't fancy. And don't plan to eat fashionably late here. When Ms. Barshay says the cafe closes at 8 p.m., she means get there by 7 or the kitchen may run out of food.

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