'Little Odessa' is nuts about sushi Fashionable: Immigrants from the old Soviet Union have a big appetite for the trendy, and what could be more haute than eating Japanese sushi in a Russian restaurant in Brooklyn?

Sun Journal

January 23, 1998|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- Vyacheslav Dobrer, the 38-year-old manager of the hot new Russian restaurant Passage in Brighton Beach, scans his list of caviar suppliers, takes a bottle of vodka off his office shelf and launches into a discussion of the newest food staple on Brooklyn's southern coast.

"Sushi! Yes! Sushi!" he says. "You can't have a Russian restaurant without it."

In this New York City neighborhood, which has been overwhelmed in the past decade by a surge of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, sushi madness has spread like a rumor of free borscht. Both Russian restaurants on the Brighton Beach boardwalk offer sushi. And on Brighton Beach Avenue, menus listing raw eel and salmon have become as familiar as double-parking and the roar of the elevated trains.

Over the past year, almost every Russian restaurant on the avenue has added some form of sushi. A half-dozen establishments have hired their own sushi chefs and put up neon signs that say "Sushi." One restaurant, the Dynasty, broadcasts pictures of sushi rolls on a large TV screen outside.

"Sushi is not something any of us ate back in the Soviet Union," says Mike Said, a 55-year-old salesman from St. Petersburg. "This is something we have discovered here, and made our own."

"I don't know any successful artists who don't eat it," says Aleksandras Shabatinas, a Lithuanian-born painter. "It is inspirational food."

New York is famous for ethnic marriages, particularly when it comes to matters of the palate. This is a city where Cambodians tend Southern-style doughnut shops, Afghans push bagel carts, and Chinese entrepreneurs have opened dozens of Mexican restaurants. But even here, the Russian-sushi elopement is considered a bit sudden -- a sign of the deep and immediate impact that former Soviet citizens are having on the city.

In the first half of this decade, 66,301 people immigrated legally to New York from the former Soviet Union, which trails only the Dominican Republic as a source of the Big Apple's immigrants. But while surveys show the city's Dominican population scattering and becoming poorer, three-quarters of the new arrivals from Russia, Ukraine and other Soviet republics have concentrated around Brighton Beach and begun to prosper.

The neighborhood, sometimes referred to as "Little Odessa," has had a small Russian Jewish community for generations. But the new arrivals have brought the community a new vitality: dozens of fiercely competitive businesses selling Russian goods, a half-dozen Russian-language publications, and ambitious young residents with a taste for the most expensive and exotic of America's luxuries.

"Even if they've just arrived with no money, the Russian mentality is that we're here, we're going to succeed in the country, and so we will have the best of everything," says Dobrer, who left Kiev for New York 19 years ago. "So you will see new immigrants driving exotic cars, wearing exotic jewelry and eating exotic food. Sushi is perfect."

Several Russian restaurants claim to have been the first to offer sushi in Brooklyn, but no one is sure exactly how the craze began. Some chefs here believe there was a natural leap from Japanese to Russian cuisine, both of which are heavy on fish. Others argue that the embrace of sushi, particularly by health-conscious younger immigrants, is part of a rejection of the creamy, greasy nature of so much Russian food.

"Sushi is an essential part of diet and life," says Janet Banova, 23, a fashionable Russian-born manager at an accounting firm. "It's one of those things I've picked up in America, like running on a StairMaster or listening to some types of music."

Competition for the business of upwardly mobile young people like Banova is fierce. Sadko, a sushi bar, opened last year. Tatiana's Cafe on the boardwalk offers a sushi brunch. M&I International Food, a supermarket and deli that is the Russian answer to Manhattan's legendary Zabar's, now stocks sushi plates next to its red pickled cabbage.

"My employees like it, too much," says Unchil Yuo, manager of the Revere Food Store, which has sushi on its salad bar. "Sometimes we eat the sushi before it can be sold."

Local chefs say privately that Passage is the most inventive, and thus popular, Russian restaurant for sushi. Weekend reservations must be made two weeks in advance. Much of the credit goes to Tony Fang, the half-Taiwanese, half-Japanese chef whom Dobrer hired last year.

Fang, 28, has tried to create what he calls "Russian-Japanese sushi," by adding more fattening sauces, mayonnaise and even cabbage to his sushi rolls. And he indulges the various whims of his customers, whose tastes in raw fish tend to run toward tuna, yellowtail, salmon and especially eel.

"We are probably not paying Tony enough," says Dobrer. "He has invented something brand-new."

The chef, with a distinctive, long-flowing ponytail, is himself something of a neighborhood sensation. Russian mothers have been known to approach him on the street and ask for cooking advice. And his sushi combinations are so popular that other restaurants routinely copy them, forcing Passage to change its menu every other month.

At work on a concoction of yellowtail, salmon, avocado and cream cheese that he named "Masa" after his sushi teacher, Fang handles fame well. He jokes easily with the restaurant's exclusively Bulgarian waiters (Dobrer considers Russians too rude to be servers). And he has learned just enough Russian to banter with customers and swear at his bosses.

Fang has become a hockey fan, now that Russian players from the Detroit Red Wings and other National Hockey League teams often drop by Passage for sushi. Dobrer even put the chef in the restaurant's popular TV ad, in which Fang faces the camera and says in Russian: "Sushi is very delicious."

Pub Date: 1/23/98

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