After a morning of dreaded and dull car errands (fixing a broken headlight and the DMV in Inglewood), I realized that it was time for lunch. My appetite is still a bit finicky as I weather the last stages of my cold, so I called my friend Larry in Seattle for some inspiration, as the majority of our conversations revolve around how much he misses the food in L.A. I ask him where he would go if he could go anywhere to eat on a beautiful, sunny October day in the city.
I had told him about my soup blog and he mentioned borscht. I said that I had been craving it lately, if only because my last soup adventures lacked a bit of color. He Googled Russian restaurants and found a place in West Hollywood called Royal Gourmet Deli.
I drove down Santa Monica Boulevard at a leisurely pace looking for the restaurant and enjoyed being a tourist in flamboyant "Boys' Town," on what used to be part of the original Route 66. Fantastic window displays and signage are everywhere - even the police department has a Hollywood-esque sign, a star-shaped sheriff's badge outlined in neon.
When I got to Royal Gourmet Deli, I found a market of Russian specialties and fresh delicatessen meats and salads. Cakes the size of cafeteria trays were displayed on top of the counter. Teas, cookies and sweets labeled in Cyrillic text beckoned with appetizing pictures on their packages.
I saw a man eating at a table outside the back door and asked the young Asian girl at the counter if there was a place to be served. She said no, but that there was a restaurant next door. I considered some of the brightly packaged sweets, but wanting to have a truly authentic Russian deli experience, I asked her what the cakes were made of. Honey, nuts, and sour cream were major components. I bought a slice of something made with dried plums and sour cream and sauntered next door.
Traktir was not very large. It had a patio that opened onto the sidewalk and a small interior that was charmingly Baba Yaga-esque - if Baba Yaga had satellite TV and made her own vodka. There were several large glass decanters on the bar, each with lemons, cranberries, jalapenos and garlic, raspberries, or what I later found out to be large knobs of horseradish floating in them. One of the waiters told me that the liquor steeps for a month in the jars before they are drinkable and that jalapeno and garlic is the most popular flavor.
To complete this festive ambience, nesting matryoshka dolls, some traditionally styled, others painted to depict the Lakers and American presidents, greeted me from shelves that hung across the room from the vicious stuffed head of a wild boar. With such a mascot in attendance, I knew I was in for a good time.
I sat down and ordered the borscht. I've only had it served cold before and their version sounded hearty, served hot with potatoes, cabbage, and beef. I chatted with Larry a bit more while waiting. I was comforted by the thoughtfulness of water and lemon served in a carafe and a huge basket of bread that I was grateful for but left untouched in my ongoing war on carbs.
I eyed the only other inhabited tables in the restaurant. At these were seated several older people, one couple and four men and a woman who I assumed were regulars or members of the management. I felt self-conscious talking on my cell phone in the presence of the older generation, who represented at that moment a culture and time where people stopped in the middle of the afternoon to sit with friends, break bread and talk to one another. The smell of one man's pipe made me even more nostalgic for a place I've never actually known as a product of a culture that always seems to aim for "faster," not always "better."
Finally, the borscht arrived. The broth was a beautiful translucent ruby red, not the usual berry that always reminds me of a Pantone color chip. And it had levels to its richness. The sour cream had begun to sink below the surface, in tasty dollops flecked with fresh dill. Beneath that were fine shreds of cabbage and beet, floating like inclusions in a gemstone. The overall flavor was pleasantly piquant, not too spicy but not too bland. After a few spoonfuls of this sublime mixture, I felt renewed.
As if that weren't bliss enough, half a slice of the same light rye that was in the breadbasket was perched on the edge of my soup plate. Covered with a shredded white cheese and grilled to toasty perfection, it was the perfect counterpoint to the luxurious simplicity of the borscht.
By this time, I was incoherent with pleasure and had to hang up on Larry so as to devote my attention to the meal. I signed off, thinking how comforting a hot bowl of borscht would be in Seattle's frigid weather. Despite the fact that I was getting over a cold and had to put on a sweater, I was spoiled by the sunshine of early fall in Los Angeles that battled with an overcast sky and finally triumphed for the duration of the afternoon.
I said goodbye and thanked him profusely for guiding me to Traktir, albeit remotely. I wished he was with me, so I could have his piece of cheese toast.