Buenos Aires – Last week I tried to go with a couple of friends to a relatively new Russian restaurant in Almagro, Ermak, Bülnes 873. We were three, and on arrival we were told there was no possibility of seating us for the entire evening, everything was reserved. The place seats a mere dozen people, so it was plausible, even though at the time, only four people were dining, and on their coffee, so likely to leave soon. Last night, Henry and I headed there after having made a reservation, and found ourselves promptly seated in this small, homey little joint, and ready to sample some promised Russian home cooking. Why the discourse? Well, they were completely reserved once again, and in short order all tables were indeed full. But twice, couples wandered in and asked for tables, and were told – we’re fully reserved, but we have a couple of extra tables and chairs in the back, if you’d like we can put them out on the sidewalk and you can eat there. How come we weren’t offered the same last week? It had been a beautiful night as well, fit for alfresco dining.
[Note: this restaurant moved to Billinghurst 813 for several years and then closed around 2012.]
Ermak takes over the space that was formerly occupied by a bar, pizzeria, parrilla named Absolut, until that company’s lawyers got wind of the name and made them close up shop. I’m not clear if these are new owners or the same, it seems to be a group of half a dozen teens and young twenty-somethings, all blond, blue-eyed, and impossibly thin, and all running about helping out in whatever seems appropriate at the given moment. They began offering a menu of Russian food, and soon found themselves embroiled in conflict with their neighbors, who were used to the availability on the block of hamburgers, pizza, and sandwiches. So now, Ermak offers two menus – a takeout and delivery menu of those familiar items for the neighborhood crowd, and a separate in-house menu of Russian specialties. So we settled in to this tiny brick walled room, festooned with various Ukranian and Soviet trinkets (the room, not us), and perused the menu.
The menu itself is a 1/3 strip of standard paper that’s been laminated in plastic. It’s beautifully caligraphed with the Russian names of the various dishes offered. Not a one of them is translated from the Russian into Spanish – which means the waitress found herself at each table, other than one with a couple of regulars, explaining each and every dish on the menu. Probably a faux pas in menu planning, but she’s clearly used to it – she delivers the descriptions machine gun rapidfire without so much as glancing at the menu itself. We decided to start with a plate of what was listed as bushenina, a name I haven’t been able to find anything listed anywhere, on the internet or in my Russian cookbooks, but it turned out to be thin shavings of roasted meat, slightly air dried, lightly seasoned, and quite good.
We also ordered a bowl of ensalada rusa, which is probably not at all authentically Russian, but is something Argentines would likely expect, just from the name. Now, I’ve mentioned before my dislike of the usual version – a potato salad gone wrong – usually with diced mushy potato, frozen peas and carrots, all globbed together in a watery mayonnaise. But, Henry likes it, so… we found ourselves confronted by a huge bowl of something quite different. Diced potato, ham, carrots, peas, turnips, pickles, and onions, all cooked perfectly, seasoned with a lightly salted vinegar, and then topped with a dollop of homemade mayonnaise. Absolutely delicious, and certainly the best version of this salad I’ve ever had.
No one is going to accuse Ermak of great culinary creativity or offering haute cuisine. This is home cooking the way my grandmother would have made it had she not left Russian when she was two and only learned how to burn a brisket from her mother. It’s the kind of stuff you’d serve for family dinner after a long, hard day’s work. Very simply, it’s simply homestyle food. Henry was in the mood for fish, so ordered a plate of the pescado a la rusa, an aluminum foil wrapped package on a plate – which was left for us to open – with a couple of mid-sized fillets of merluzzo, or hake, atop boiled potato slices, topped with homemade sour cream, parsley, and slices of lemon. It needed a bit of salt, but was fresh and good.
This is my plate of vareniki, which are classic Ukranian dumplings, more or less like what we think of as pierogi. Here, however, slightly different – first, they’re large. They’re the size of an empanada. Wait, in fact, it turns out they use empanada dough to encase the filling, crimp them just like an empanada, and boil them rather than bake or fry them. They’re filled with a rather delicious blend of potato, onions, cremini mushrooms, and scattered bits of medium hot cherry peppers – all topped off with more homemade sour cream and parsley. Now that’s an empanada to take note of.
Interestingly, no desserts of Russian origin were offered, just basic stuff like gelato and flan, which I was surprised at, because truthfully, while nothing fancy, it’s quite well made food, served with a smile, maybe even a little love, and very reasonably priced – drinks included we only spent 36 pesos, or $12. By the way, I asked, the name Ermak comes from Ermak Timofeyevich, a Cossack hero who is credited with the conquering of the Mongols in Siberia and bringing it under Russian control in the late 16th century.