Since its opening in 2014, Kachka has become one of the most important Russian restaurants in the country, drawing attention to a cuisine that rarely gets its due in the American conversation of food. The restaurant is run by chef and co-owner Bonnie Morales, the daughter of Belarusian immigrants, who cooks food from the former Soviet Union.
In July, the overwhelmingly popular restaurant went through a sort of culinary mitosis: Kachka proper relocated to a larger space a few blocks away in Southeast Portland, with a moodily lighted dining room, lacy tablecloths and pillars carved to look like chicken legs, to serve diners looking for a full-on dinner experience; its original space — a slender bar that’s always been hard to get a seat at — rebranded itself as Kachinka, a more casual spot for Russian-inspired bar bites.
The menu at Kachka starts in a helpful and cheeky way with a guide on “How to eat like a Russian.” Step 1 is to cover every square inch of the table with zakuski, the Slavic word for bite-size Russian drinking food, such as caviar with blini. A meat board contains three mild-flavored salamis — one Moscow-style, with thick studs of creamy fat; a Kiev-style that is all pork and slightly lighter in color; and a Jewish-style beef reminiscent of a flattened Slim Jim — along with slices of housemade dense bread. Beware the smear of Russian mustard on the wooden cutting board; it is wickedly potent and will temporarily knock out your senses.
You will want the imerulian khachapuri, a smoked cheese wrapped in dough, described, accurately, “like a crunchwrap and a cheese calzone had a lovechild,” and a couple of of the fried lamb and bulgur meatballs with a sour plum center that the restaurant has dubbed “the Armenian gusher.” The descriptions are more Taco Bell than Tolstoy, but I found them reliable all the same as I navigated the unfamiliar waters of Eastern European cuisine.
Step 2 is, essentially, to drink “vodka, or maybe vodka.” Kachka has more than 50 varieties available a la carte or grouped into flights. I ordered the “Mother Russia” (more because of the name than any actual preference), a trio of St. Petersburg, Green Mark and White Tiger, 30-gram pours each. The restaurant specializes in seasonal vodka infusions, so I also added a dill-flower-infused one — it reminded me ever-so-slightly of a pickleback — and the house specialty horseradish vodka, a cunningly clear infusion that left me reeling.
One of the reasons I wanted to eat at Kachka was to try Herring Under a Fur Coat, a dish I’d first read about in a Jonathan Gold article in Lucky Peach. Gold had come across the traditional layered Russian salad during a layover at the Moscow airport, just as he was contemplating going to TGI Fridays. In his article, The Times’ late restaurant critic noted that Herring Under Fur “was a common, if unloved, Russian dish.”
At Kachka, Herring Under a Fur Coat gets a lot of love — it’s one of the restaurant’s most popular orders (and, if you go by Instagram posts, its No. 1 most-photographed dish, Morales says). Her rendition is a jewel-toned thing of beauty. Shaped like an oversize ice cream sandwich, it contains seven distinct layers: a base of potatoes, followed by chunks of translucent cured herring, diced onions, a coat of pureed carrots and then a thick layer of beets, the deep garnet staining the slick of mayo above. A carpet of hard-boiled eggs is strewn across the top, the whites and yolks sieved separately.
The proper way to eat the cylindrical salad is to dig in all at once, capturing a bit of all the layers in one bite. The taste is curiously satisfying — a study in many textures (chunky, smooth, crumbly and goopy) and flavors (the tang of the herring balanced by the earthiness of the beets and carrots).
At either Kachka or Kachinka, you can get Morales’ fabulous pelmeni, the herbaceous minced meat — a mixture of tightly packed beef, veal and pork — boiled in thick jackets of hexagonal-shaped dough; the dumplings are served on their own or in one of two broths. But that Herring Under a Fur Coat, I’m afraid, is only at Kachka.
960 SE 11th Ave Portland, Ore., (503) 235-0059, kachkapdx.com.