There are cuisines that most Americans don't know enough about to even have misconceptions. Consider Ukraine, which shares a border, religion and alphabet with Russia. People who know only those facts might assume that the culture and cuisine are the same. In fact, this cuisine has inspiration from the Turks, Central Asians, Lithuanians, Poles, Greeks and Germans, who all conquered portions of the country and were vanquished in turn.
The culinary range can be sampled at Roxolana, a stylish restaurant in Pasadena that feels at first more French than Eastern European, except for the odd bits of folk art and textiles. The menu is purely Ukrainian. We started with potato pancakes, borscht and a vinaigrette salad. The salad showed French influence, a mix of boiled potato with roasted beets, peas, pickles and onion in a light, tangy dressing. The mix of winter vegetables is surprisingly refreshing, sweet and sour flavors working well together with the tart vinegar. The crock of borscht had a similar balance of beet sweetness given body by the rich chicken stock, and there were enough flavors going on that we would have been happy to make a meal of it.
Even so, the standout among the starters was the plate of potato pancakes. Potato pancakes can be made from grated potato, potato flour or a mix of the two. At Roxolana, they use a mix. It's a good compromise and results in a fluffy interior, slight crispness and real potato flavor. The pancakes were available with sour cream and caviar, or bacon and onions with sour cream on the side. Since one person in my party thinks that fish eggs are only edible after they hatch, we went with the bacon. I'm going back with someone else and getting caviar next time just to enjoy the luxurious flavor, but these were delicious.
For entrees, we selected stuffed trout, pork rolled with mushroom in mushroom gravy, and a stew called Zharkoe Kiev. The trout was a slight disappointment, since it wasn't actually stuffed but butterflied and dusted with herbs. It was tasty, but not as described on the menu. Had we known it was such a plain dish, we might have ordered something more adventurous.
The pork rolls were more interesting, thinly pounded meat around julienned vegetables topped with incredibly rich and buttery mushroom gravy. It wasn't a highly spiced dish — Ukrainians do use mustard and horseradish, but this cuisine is about intense flavors of quality ingredients. The trout and pork were served with rice and a vegetable medley — squash and broccoli, on the day we were there. Our server said that in Ukraine, other vegetables would be served, but Ukrainians in California like these flavors, so squash it is. We also tried a traditional dish of white beans fried with onions, which we enjoyed much more.
The most traditional of the three dishes, and the one we liked the best, was the Zharkoe Kiev. Zharkoe means stew, and this was an intense mushroom broth with pork, cabbage, onions, potatoes and carrots adding flavor and texture. This is pure comfort food, the kind of wholesome and warming stuff that every grandmother used to be able to cook, if you gave her all day to do it.
We paired the main courses with a richly flavored Lvivske beer and a cup of coffee. Roxolana offers sweet Armenian and Lithuanian wines as well as Californian, but the beer is the attraction here. As for the coffee, it is typical of what I drank in Eastern Europe, weak and very bitter. It might have been acceptable with a traditional Ukrainian honey cake, but on the night we were there, only American-style coffee cakes were offered.
Our dinner for three ran $91 — not bad for three appetizers and three entrees in elegant surroundings. Roxolana is a rare window on the cuisine of a huge and misunderstood country, a worthy destination for adventurous diners.
RICHARD FOSS writes regularly for Marquee.
Where: 34 South Raymond Avenue, Pasadena.
Hours and parking: Open noon to 9 p.m. Tues.-Sat., noon to 8 p.m. Sun.; street parking.
More info: (626) 792-0440; www.roxolanarestaurant.com