Wine and Dine at Babushka Restaurant

In October we had a meal at Walnut Creek’s Babushka Restaurant that would have been delicious at any time of the year, but that beautiful fall day beneath skies that were sunny and overcast by turn provided a fitting context for the delicious Eastern European food we were being served. My father’s side of the family was Polish. My grandfather came to America on a Russian passport. My grandmother was a wonderful cook, and I was elated to discover a restaurant right here in Walnut Creek that served the dishes and entrees of my childhood, but with flavors and presentations at levels that Grandma couldn’t have imagined and would surely have loved! In fact, when they discovered that we were writing about the restaurant, two fellow diners volunteered enthusiastic endorsements of the restaurant, reveling at the same qualities that I found so attractive. One of them was from Poland and the other from Israel. Both of them said they gladly made the trip from their Berkeley residences for any excuse because, in their opinion, Babushka serves the best food in the Bay Area.

The two women appreciated the atmosphere of the place as well as the authentic quality of the food. One of them, named Batsheva, said, “Babushka is like I remember from my home, but very sophisticated.” The other one, Stefania, said, “I come to Babushka every time I am celebrating anything, bringing my guests with me from Berkeley so together we can enjoy this excellent dining experience. “Stefania said that she had been raised in Poland and had lived in a number of places throughout Eastern Europe. “This is the best restaurant I ever ate in!” she said.

We discovered how the restaurant had achieved such excellence when we spoke with the proprietor, Leo Malkov, and his son, Zoriy. Leo started the restaurant 17 years ago, but at the beginning of 2012 son Zoriy assumed the role of executive ownership with full control of the kitchen. Leo is proud poppa, delighted with his son’s culinary success. Leo loves to smile and crack jokes. He is a big man and could be intimidating, but the customers are delighted to learn about his warm spirit. Zoriy said that customers often say, “We love your dad’s attitude!” “We create food with passion and love,” Zoriy said. “People can taste the difference.” I could taste the difference. The food seemed to me like the original Eastern European food style.

We learned that Zoriy had been a seventh grader when Babushka started. Zoriy said that while still in high school he realized how much he enjoyed both cooking and then consuming the food that he had prepared. In 2006 he enrolled at Diablo Valley Arts and said that right from day one he fell in love with the food industry. He graduated in 2008 with certificates in Culinary Arts, Pastry & Baking, and Restaurant Management. He served apprenticeships with some top chefs in a number of highly rated Northern California eating establishments, concluding as a part-time Junior Sous Chef with Rick Delamain at his Cypress Restaurant. Zoriy returned to Babushka with the goal of creating a unique culinary style – Eastern European with a California Twist, using local, sustainable, seasonal, and fresh ingredients.

One of the culinary traditions Babushka has preserved is that of freshness. “People didn’t have a freezer in the old days,” Malkov said, “so everything had to be fresh.” He then added, with the characteristic twinkle in his eyes, “We don’t have a microwave.” Chef Zoriy told us that all of the dishes are prepared in house and from scratch including all the cuts and grinds, plus the fillings, etcetera. The only exception is the pastry, and Zoriy said that lack of space is the only reason he doesn’t do the pastry in-house, as well.

We began our research with Piroshki, which is minced chicken and sautéed onions baked to a golden brown in a puff pastry, and then served with a mustard-based cream sauce, called Robert (pronounced RO-bare), and topped with pickled carrot garnish. The carrots were so delicious that some people use them on salads instead of dressing. The Eggplant Crepes were a vegetarian dish consisting of thinly sliced and sautéed eggplants that were rolled in a house-made cream sauce consisting of eggs, flower coating, and herbed aioli. The dish was served with fresh vegetables and zesty tomato sauce and accompanied by a tapenade of bell peppers, onions, garlic, tomatoes, salt, and sugar then served on Roman tomato rounds. Incredible!

We also sampled an entrée called Golubtsy that consisted of beef, chicken, and rice rolled in cabbage leaves, and then covered with a generous serving of an incredible Zesty Bell Pepper Sauce that Chef Zoriy explained was made from scratch with bell peppers, tomatoes, grated carrots, and onions.

The main entrée was a signature dish, Chicken Kiev, which consisted of a boned-in breaded oven-roasted chicken breast, sliced, and drizzled with an herbed brown-butter sauce, served on a bed of caramelized-onion pan roasted potatoes. The presentation was wonderful; the taste memorable.

The meal ended with an absolutely unique dessert – a creation of Chef Zoriy that included a chocolate covered cheesecake, rolled in a crepe, baked in the oven with a spiced sour cherry reduction, made from Vishnay Cherries, which was flown in from Canada. The cherries were served in Russian cakes with savory and sweet flavors that we learned were provided by Allspice, Star anise, and the cherries own natural juices, cooked down, strained, and cooled.

It was one of the best desserts I ever had! Babushka’s wine list includes labels from seven different Eastern European countries. We served an excellent red wine imported from a Romanian winery. European beer is also one of Babushka’s signature imported products. We learned that Babushka began annual beer tasting events three years ago providing Central Country residents with exposure to Eastern European Beers. This year the event offered 42 beers from 12 Eastern European countries. We sampled a few beers, including a Polish Republic beverage called Tatra Baltika 4 Dark Beer. (The “4” was according to a series from 1 to 9 that represented the darkness of the beer.) The flavor of the beers paired nicely with the food we were served.

Babushka’s culinary treasures are reasonably priced. Most entrees are under $20. We not only enjoyed every bite of the delectable dishes we sampled, but we also appreciated the quite relaxed ambiance of the place, that, at Batsheva said, perfectly combined homely and elegant qualities.

Babushka is a little gem hidden behind an unimposing façade as part of a small strip of stores of Newell Avenue. The main entrance leads into the deli trough which diners pass into the restaurant itself. The transition is surprising and delightful for first-time patrons. We learned that Leo’s wife, Maya, did the interior design, which combines old school and new school elements arranged with feng shui sensibilities. The main dining room features large mirrors and windows with draperies and subdued lighting. Tables are laid with royal red tablecloths. Large windows are decorated with ornate burgundy drapes. Chandeliers and other lighting fixtures, which were imported from Russia, provide the dining room with a Auropean feel. It’s easy to imagine that you are dining on a set from Dr. Zhivago. Patio dining is available in fine weather.

The Babushka Deli sells a tasty line of nearly 3,000 delicacies imported from Russia, the Czech Republic, Poland, Israel, and other Eastern European and Mediterranean countries. Products include such things as Sweet Kiss Cheese, pickled cabbage and sauerkraut, Russian Napoleons (a type of French pastry), a nine layer vanilla cake, smoked white fish, smoked sturgeon, veal tongue, Ehmer chicken bologna, bright pink foil babushka chocolates, Napitki lemonade, Borscht soup mix, Moscow teacakes, canned goulash,herring, Eastern beers, Nikolas II tea, authentic Russian caviar (Black & Red), and Monastryrskiy Okroshka Kvas, which is a Russian rye cola.

The senior Malkov has a colorful history. He was born in Kirovobad (now called Gyabdzha), Azerbaijan in 1955 as Leonid Mikhailovich. His father was a general and a pilot who served the Soviet Army in WWII. Leo himself became a pilot and might have served as the Eastern European version of Tom Cruise’s "Top Gun" character, Maverick.

At age 18, Malkov became the youngest flight navigator in the country. By the time he turned 21 he was a chief navigator, then got his wings and spent the next two decades behind the controls of some of the world’s most sophisticated airplanes. He was 24 years old when the Soviet/Afghanistan war broke out, and flew teams of surgeons into Afghanistan and airlifted badly wounded soldiers out of the war zone.

Leo immigrated to the United States in 1993 and became a U.S. Citizen in 1999. “We came to America not to collect food stamps,” Leo said. “We worked hard! We became successful!” He couldn’t become a commercial airline pilot because he was not a U.S. Citizen, so he took a job scrubbing floors and washing dishes at Pizza Hut. A week later he got the job of delivering pizza, even though he knew only a few words of English. He said that he quickly learned what “Keep the change,” meant. In only three years, on December 17, 1996, the Malkovs opened Babushka.

They began by selling ethnic deli products together with grocery and dessert items imported from Russia and other Eastern European countries. "I knew absolutely nothing about this business before," Leo said with a big grin. "But now I’m a professor!" He has obviously mastered the details of his industry.

Babushka is a family affair. Besides Executive Chef, Zoriy, Malkov’s lovely daughter Biana is business and marketing manager; she’s a graduate of a London University. Wife Maya was the first cook and still works in the kitchen. Malkov said that the restaurant family culture is like My Big Fat Greek Wedding. "Every day I buy more Windex," Leo said with a laugh. He told us that the family comes to help; afterwards they stay to eat.

Babushka closes only on New Year’s Day. I’ve eaten in Babushka several times. It is becoming one of my favorite restaurants.

Source: http://www.myvirtualpaper.com November, 2012