Feeling the Lyubov' at Moscow Deli

There's been a lot of foodie love lately for Russian Gourmet in the surprisingly food-rich city of Lake Forest. There have been some assertions that it is the only Russian store in Orange County. Eto nie pravda; this is a filthy, filthy lie. (What, you didn't know I spoke Russian, too?)

While I need to check out Russian Gourmet (“but Lake Forest is so far away!”), my needs for Russian goods have been met since I moved to these fair orange acres by Moscow Deli.

Gustavo reviewed Moscow Deli nearly six years ago, and while the borscht is still there, there are so many other things to eat that it deserved another look. Moscow Deli is a tiny place tucked away in a minimall in Costa Mesa, behind the OC outpost of Empanada's Place, a worn glass storefront with a couple of tables outside.

The place is 80% market, 20% prepared food. This is where North Countians can head for tvoróg, the smooth white cheese known as Quark in German, for butter (no disrespect toward my forebears, but the best butter in Europe comes not from Denmark or Normandy, but from Mother Russia), for huge bottles of the fermented-bread drink known as kvass.

You're looking for sausage? Moscow Deli has four dozen types. You need an obscure kind of Estonian pickled asparagus? It's available in jars there. Ceylon tea blended especially to make zavárka (tea concentrate, traditionally diluted 10:1 with boiling water from a samovar)? No problem.

The short and, at times, oddly translated list of sandwiches is the real secret at Moscow Deli, though; all the sandwiches are excellent. For your virgin experience, order an Odessa sandwich ($5.99), an insane roundup of ingredients put together by a savant in a fit of inspired hunger. It's two slices of soft Polish rye bread; one is spread with a sharp horseradish sauce, the other with “Odessa sauce”, a combination of eggplant, peppers and garlic that has been puréed into submission. A large pile of cold sliced kol'bása (a Russian sausage a bit like salami) is slapped on top, then topped with “salad leafs” (usually cabbage leaves salted slightly so they wilt, but occasionally iceberg lettuce), tomatoes, and onions shaved so fine as to be invisible. One bite and your tastebuds will be singing “May There Always Be Sunshine”.

Make sure you get one of their salads for the extra $2. The salat vitamínskii (exactly what it looks like) is a shredded tangle of cabbage, carrots, celery, cucumbers and curly parsley. I don't know what it is about this salad, but there's a grandmotherly taste to this salad. Take a couple of bites and you'll see what I mean; there's a back flavor that is welcoming and nostalgic: where have you been? Come, sit and eat.

Also full of that taste of home (if your home happened to be in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn) are the gólubtsy, fat cabbage rolls stuffed with meat, rice and gentle spices and simmered in tomato sauce. Resist the urge to order two; these are meaningful rolls. If you're still hungry, order a couple of drániki–potato pancakes. Don't forget the sour cream.

The blintzes deserve special mention. They sit in the cold case, but the ladies will reheat them for you. Some are chicken (kúritsa) and some are sweetened cheese (tvoróg). While the chicken ones are delicious, the finestkind cheese blintzes ($1.39 each) are simply out of this world. The filling is so soft and creamy that you won't believe it was the Russian answer to cream cheese, and the blini have that charactertistic glutinous tug that is the object of my desire.

You'll be asked if you want them with fruit (s frúktami) or with sour cream (so smetánoy). Fruit may be tempting, but be Russian for a minute and just order the sour cream, because Russian sour cream is like no other dairy product in the world, and this is a perfect way to try it, with its pourable, off-white tang lapped lovingly over the sweet, smooth filling inside a buckwheat crêpe.

If blintzes aren't your thing, get your dessert to go: go to the freezer case and buy a package of varéniki, small wheat dumplings filled with sweetened pie cherries. At $7.99 a bag, they aren't cheap, but they are delicious. Splurge for a small container of smetána (that's that sour cream), then go home, boil the dumplings, pour the included cherry syrup over them, dollop with smetána and enjoy; it's even a surprisingly healthy dessert. Or splurge on a slice of napoleon, a big chunk of poppy-seed pieróg, or head back to the freezer for a cardboard-wrapped nugget of morózhenoye (Russian ice cream–the Dadu brand is the one to get), which is richer and creamier than most ice creams.

Anyone who's ever been to Russia knows that service is eleventh on a list of ten important characteristics for a business to have, which is why I was genuinely stunned at the warmth and the kindness displayed by the women who run the deli. Being greeted with zdrávstvuitye (hello) instead of chto vy khotítye (what do you want)? Suggestions and free samples if you're dithering? Smiles, for the love of Lenin? Nearly unheard of in Russia but everyday occurrences at Moscow Deli.

Their English has definitely improved since I started going, but if you are asking specific questions about ingredients or looking for suggestions, you may fare better with a Russian speaker.

This is a place that is sorely needed in north OC, and I've yet to take someone who didn't fall in love with it instantly. Next time you're shopping at IKEA, skip the meatballs in the cafeteria and head down Harbor for a sandwich or some borscht instead.

Ready? All together now:

Moscow Deli, 3015 Harbor Blvd., Costa Mesa; (714) 546-3354.

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