"Feel how heavy this bread is," says Sasha Shor. She passes me a loaf of rye the size of a dog with the density of a black hole. I fumble the bread; it hits the floor with a dull thud. It's really heavy.
"It's like there's no air in there," Sasha says. "My grandfather would eat black bread like this topped with thin slices of salo, a salted fatback that's like Russian lardo."
I've eaten salo at Sasha's house, slice after slice, washed back by shot after shot of one of the many infused vodkas she and her husband, architect Josh Held, always have sloshing around their freezer.
In addition to the vodka, Sasha usually has a few varieties of caviar at hand, a pile of warm buttered blini, some kind of smoked fish—and a story about where each ingredient came from. A brand consultant of Russian descent, Sasha and Josh collaborated on Tres Carnes, the Manhattan mini chain that serves brisket tacos and other "Texas Smoked Mexican Fare."
Sasha's a pal, so I'm biased about her restaurants, but she's undeniably a great guide to navigating the Russian food shops of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, at which she's a regular. Which is why we're walking the aisles of NetCost Market, a big grocery store around the corner from the Neck Road station on the Q train.
"These are salted tomatoes," Sasha says. They're kind of amazing: bright red, tart little tomatoes in a garlicky pickling brine that's fizzy on the tongue.
"Chase a shot of vodka with that brine or use it in Bloody Marys," Sasha suggests. "It's an all-purpose juice."
Everything around us—pickled mushrooms, salted red cabbage—is some form of a drinking snack.
"The American culture of having cocktails without food is insane to Russians. We eat, we drink, we eat and drink. I've never seen my dad drunk, but I've seen him put away a bottle of vodka."
Prepared foods at NetCost Market | Photo: Tasting Table
By the time we make it to the smoked-fish counter, I'm in the mood to go drink and snack with Sasha's dad. But first there are many things to try: cold-smoked butterfish, salmon belly strips, hot-smoked whole sevruga and Norwegian semga or steelhead trout.
"The people who make this stuff are real grandmas," Sasha says approvingly.
Here's her insider's guide to where to get real Russian finds, including salmon caviar in bulk and grandma-worthy tastes of the old country.
2257 E. 16th St. (and various locations around town)
"There's never anybody to park your car at the valet—but I like the sentiment and attention to service. A kind of Russian Whole Foods in terms of size, layout, displays, selection and quality. Huge prepared foods department, pickle bar, cured meats, smoked fish, dairy, bakery, frozen goods, butcher shop as well as a rotisserie selection. This is probably best for most non-Russian speaking people that are more accustomed to the American retail experience."
1029 Brighton Beach Ave.
"Built in the old Millennium Theatre, this is the new kid on the boardwalk. People call it 'the fancy place.' Looks a little like a Dean & Deluca in a DeLorean showroom. Showy and kind of over-the-top, but lots of great products beautifully presented."
1007 Brighton Beach Ave.
"One-stop shop, the go-to market for many Brighton Beach residents. Huge hot and cold prepared food bar, smoked and cured meats and fish section. Look for offal: hearts, liver, marrow, tongue, kidneys—all the important things."
3100 Ocean Pkwy.
"This is the place for caviar. They stock some of the freshest and best selections at the best prices—in bulk. The real find here is the salmon roe by the pound. Look for Peter Pan brand, which is the preferred everyday salmon roe of most Russian residents of the area. To be eaten on everything from blini to simple butter sandwiches. Every day—including breakfast."
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