“Can I get the pelmeni?” I asked a gentleman at Russian Gourmet, the second Russo-centric eatery in the county.
“You can,” he replied, “but it’s going to take about 25 minutes to prepare.”
I didn’t mind—there were shelves to explore. The grocery keeps hundreds of Eastern European products in its tiny storefront—black-currant jelly, freshly baked breads, Polish cookies with a smear of apricot jam, Ukrainian breads. There’s an entire aisle stocked with baskets of Russian chocolates! One deli counter contains meats and cold goods ready to slop onto a plate; an upright freezer toward the back holds dozens of types of fish in various cuts. Next to it is another freezer with drinks, and I grabbed one that had pictures of lemons on the outside—a fizzy, tart drink similar to San Pellegrino’s limonata, but sweeter and in a massive bottle.
Papers advertising random dishes—borscht, Russian-style kebabs—are glued to the walls, but the bulk of the menu is taped to the window outside. It features mostly salads and dumplings, with some pictures for explanation. It seems like Russian Gourmet thinks of serving food as an afterthought, which explains that day’s sparse lunchtime crowd while the many restaurants in its industrial park entertained dozens each.
The pelmenis arrived after 15 minutes, served by a young woman with hair as blond as sunshine and a radiant smile to match. About a dozen of the dumplings sat on the plate, accompanied by slivers of tomatoes and cucumbers and dollops of what I then assumed were Thousand Islands dressing and ketchup. Each pelmeni was nearly translucent, shaped like a closed ear, but bulging with chicken inside. They had just been prepared, still moist and steaming. These were dumplings of home, of tradition—delicious. I ate them sans the sauces, as they were so flavorful and juicy, but then I decided to smear a bit on one. The ketchup wasn’t the sappy condiment I’ve grown to despise, but fresher, more verdant. And that pink goo I dismissed as mere salad dressing? It possessed a kick.
“Do you want cookies?” the woman asked. I thought she was going to give me some for free, but she walked me to the pastry aisle and described each in thorough detail. She seemed apologetic about the menu, remarking that they were experimenting with different dishes to see what sells before settling on a more formal menu. Business has been slow since they opened in January, but she expects more customers to come. “And I’m going to do a new website, so people can order products online!” she said.
And those two sauces? Russian ketchup and a horseradish sauce she made. I took jellies and cookies for the road. “Come back soon!” she said.
You heard the lady, gentle readers: Go.
Russian Gourmet, 22722 Lambert St., Ste. 1701, Lake Forest, (949) 600-8222; www.russiangourmetstore.com.
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This column appeared in print as "Dumplings of the Czars."