Searching the city for borscht

The Russian festival stirs a fond desire for the real beet soup

Baltimore Vivat!

February 19, 2003|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's Vivat! St. Petersburg festival is more than a celebration of Russian arts and music. With more than 30 restaurants joining in the fun, it's also a celebration of Russian food.

And what could be more Russian than borscht? OK, the first pot of borscht was probably cooked in Ukraine -- which was long part of the Russian and Soviet empires, but now is an independent country.

But for most of us Americans, Russian soup is borscht.

The problem is, no one can agree how to make it.

"I've talked with a lot of different people, and everyone says they make it the right way and there is only one way," said Tim Booth, chef at Ze Mean Bean Cafe, a Fells Point restaurant which offers Eastern European food year-round. Yet, he said, he has seen many different ways to make borscht.

Some versions are vegetarian and served cold. Other variations, more common in Russia and Ukraine, contain meat and are served hot.

So I decided to partake of Vivat! (which means long live) in my own way -- searching for a bowl of real borscht, or at least borscht like my Russian mother-in-law makes. She uses fresh beets, cabbage, potatoes, tomato paste and chunks of beef which simmer in a pot for more than an hour. She always serves her borscht hot with a dollop of sour cream.

In the first three days of the Vivat! St. Petersburg festival, my husband and I tasted the borscht at five Baltimore restaurants.

We started at Ze Mean Bean Cafe, where our waitress brought out two bowls of bright pink soup topped with sour cream. There was no mistaking the chunks of beets, tomatoes and cabbage in this borscht. The soup had the familiar earthy taste of sweet red beets, but it wasn't quite like my mother-in-law's borscht because it didn't have the chunks of beef.

Next we ventured to Joy America Cafe in Federal Hill, where the restaurant is celebrating Vivat! with three Russian-inspired dishes -- borscht, tsyplionok tabaka (a spicy flattened cornish hen) and Kahlua-and-vodka flavored ice cream.

Chef Mark Lynch's borscht was a peppery soup made with golden beets, cabbage and carrots. But without the familiar red color and sour cream topping, this soup -- while nice--just wasn't borscht.

I was sure we would get the real thing at New York Palace, a Russian restaurant on Park Avenue. Chef Oksana Tumkiv explained the secret of her borscht: red beets, chicken broth, tomato sauce, boiled potatoes, cabbage, carrots, fried onion seasoned with dill, parsley, garlic, pepper, vinegar and sugar.

Her recipe yielded a bright red soup with chunks of vegetables. But this borscht was more garlicky than my mother-in-law's and lacked the chunks of meat.

The next day, our search continued, this time at Bistro 300 at the Hyatt where chef Scott Brittingham is serving borscht as part of a three-course Russian menu that also includes beef stroganoff and a rich appetizer of mushroom in cream sauce.

Brittingham's version was a cold pureed soup made from beef stock and caramelized vegetables and garnished with sour cream.

This soup had a nice beet flavor and rosy pink color, but because it was cold and pureed, it wasn't the borscht I was searching for.

By the third evening, I was losing my appetite for beets and cabbage, but we made one more attempt. We tried Sascha's 527 Cafe on Charles Street, where chef Quinn Appleby is featuring different Russian dishes every night of the festival.

His borscht was a hot vegetarian soup with the familiar beets and cabbage, but with the unusual addition of raisins, which gave the soup a sweet flavor. It was delicious, but had such a different taste than what I was familiar with that I would have trouble calling it borscht.

So in all of Baltimore is there no place that has borscht like my mother-in-law makes? Of course we haven't tried them all, but for the time being I've had my fill of beets and cabbage. The next time I get a hankering for borscht like my mother-in-law makes, I'll ask her for her recipe.

For more info

More than 30 restaurants are offering Russian-inspired menus during the festival, which runs until March 2.

For a list of participating restaurants, visit www. vivatfest.com and click on restaurants under the Area Info and Hotel Packages tab.

A free restaurant guide is also available in downtown hotels and office buildings and some restaurants.

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