Feature writing


Chicken Kiev, or pierogi New York?

The Times

June 14, 2012


There are countless vodka shots and plates of varenyky dumplings, along with bowls of popcorn and bottles of Ukrainian beer. But on Monday afternoon, for the last 32 minutes of Ukraine’s first Euro 2012 match against Sweden, no one is eating anything at the bar of Veselka Bowery on New York’s Lower East Side.

The 30-strong crowd, many in the joint-host team’s yellow shirts, watch the television nervously as Ukraine edge towards victory, shouting “get it out of there” every time the Swedes approach the Ukrainian penalty area and “put it in the box” whenever the Ukrainians charge into the Swedish half. The barman, Yarko Dobriansky, leads a chorus of Boodmo — let us be — after striker Andriy Shevchenko scores what transpires to be the winning goal in the 61st minute. Jonas Cullberg, “the only Swedish man here”, with his Ukrainian girlfriend Mariya Voynowa, looks sanguine. “I’m excited we’re winning,” she says, smiling at him apologetically.

Tom Birchand opened the Bowery branch of Veselka last November because, while he could serve wine and beer at the restaurant’s flagship East Village home a few blocks away, he could not serve spirits “because the site is leased from a scouting organisation”. Vodka, rather than wine or beer, is the preferred accompaniment to Ukrainian dishes such as borscht, varenyky (the stuffed dumplings also known as pierogi) and sweet cheese blintzes.

Olesia Lew, the head chef, says the menu is based on the principle of Ukrainian food “marrying the sour and sweet”. She does not say it but another principle is carbs, carbs everywhere. Dobriansky, born in New York with a Ukrainian family, says: “Ukrainian food is delicious. If you’re not health conscious you can pig out and not care.”

When the original Veselka opened in 1954, on the same corner that it stands today as a cigarettes and candy store, its owner and Birchand’s father-in-law, Wolodymyr Darmochwal, had ten seats at the counter and four tables serving “basic Ukrainian food”, Birchand says, as well as tuna sandwiches and hamburgers.

Fifty eight years later, Veselka is open 24 hour s a day and it is a New York institution serving Eastern European food — not just Ukrainian — and American comfort food. “Some people think we’re Polish and we don’t go out of our way to convince them otherwise,” laughs Birchand as he sits at an outside table during a busy lunchtime. Its celebrity patrons include Chloë Sevigny, who lives near by, Sex and the City’s Chris Noth, Maria Sharapova and comedians Louis C. K. and Jon Stewart, who brings his family in for brunch. Where Veselka Bowery is modern and airy, the main Veselka is a dizzying bustle of waiters and customers, glass cabinets of branded cups and cookbooks with the menu written across the walls and a cooking station that is a flash of frying, steaming and plate-juggling. There is a neon sign that reads: “Veselka is love”.

When Veselka opened as a small store, “it was the kind of place where you could get anything at 3am,” Birchand says as we eat delicious cold, creamy, beetroot summer borscht, spinach and cheese pierogi and Kielbasa sausage, washed down with mint tea. Inside, a full house for lunch are eating beetroot and goat cheese salads, veal goulash, stuffed cabbage and diner staples such as turkey sandwiches and hamburgers.

Birchand sees Veselka as an “elevated diner” and the Bowery branch as an opportunity to hone more “finer dining” dishes such as chicken Kiev, smoked fish and pierogies with fancier fillings, like the breakfast version of bacon, egg and home fries. Darmochwal and his wife Olha came to New York from a displaced persons’ camp in Germany in the late 1940s. There had been a Ukrainian community in this part of the East Village since after the First World War. Today there are two other Ukrainian restaurants nearby and even non-Eastern European restaurants selling pierogies.

“They didn’t speak any English when they came here,” Birchand says. “It was the classic immigrant’s tale. In the Ukraine they had been respected upper-middle class people. Here he worked in a brewery as a janitor, she washed out potties in a hospital. They struggled until slowly they made a success out of this business. Back then this was a rough working class neighbourhood. Teenagers would make fun of him. They’d ask for a vanilla milkshake and he’d make a chocolate one because he didn’t understand and they’d shout: ‘What’s the f***ing matter with you? Are you stupid?’ He had to put up with a lot of that.”

Darmochwal was so wedded to his business that he rented a third-floor flat opposite. Birchand remembers him looking down at his café long after his shift was over. “He’d seldom go home. This was such a part of his genetic make-up he had a hard time leaving. He became a pillar of the community.”

Birchand describes himself as an “honorary Ukrainian”. He was born and raised in New Jersey and met Darmochwal in 1966, aged 20, while dating his daughter, Marta, who he had met at Rutgers University. “Artists and painters were here, a hippy population, this area had become the Haight-Ashbury of the east coast. Venues like Electric Circus and Fillmore East attracted lots of young people and they all came here.”

Birchand says he “tried to speak the language a bit” but a group of Ukrainian women were especially hard on him, hissing, “he’s not one of us”. They mellowed as Birchand stuck around. “It took me a while to figure out what I wanted to do in life. Eventually I realised it was this.” Darmochwal “educated and nurtured” him and the two became close, while relations with his own children were strained.

“I’m sure he wanted his daughter to marry a Ukrainian but at some point realised that was not going to happen so very gently tried to turn me into the next best thing.” One point of tension in Birchand and Marta’s marriage was that she did not want him to get so involved in the family business, which had “bad connotations for her and good ones for me”. He and Marta had two sons, and later divorced. Birchand has been married to second wife Sally, a veterinarian with whom he has three children, for 27 years.

When Birchand succeeded Darmochwal after he died in 1975 — he suffered a heart attack at Veselka’s cash register — it was a dark time in the neighbourhood. “There were drugs and muggings, I came really close to shutting up shop. I couldn’t pay the bills or taxes.” The cigarettes and soda aspect of the business was phased out and a turning point came when The Village Voice published a positive review of the blintzes in the early 1980s.

The place, which became popular with East Village-dwelling performance artists such as Penny Arcade and Tim Miller, was renovated and doubled in size in 1996 (“to make it look more like Starbucks which had just opened” jokes one customer).

“An awful lot of our customers have an Eastern European background — Jewish or not, Polish, Hungarian, Czech,” says Birchand of the packed tables. “We hear all the time that this really honest, homely Eastern European comfort food reminds them of their grandmother’s cooking.”

Today, Jeremiah Shea, 74, a regular for 45 years, is enjoying the summer borscht —“I love the Christmas borscht which comes at the end of November”— and an egg salad sandwich: “The red velvet cupcakes are scary-addictive, I mustn’t go there.”

Jim Ingalls, a regular for 19 years, has ordered an East Village salad of spinach, bacon and egg. Ella Yadushlivi, from Russia, is enjoying pierogi and salad: “This tastes of home: sour, salty, meat and cheeses”. Julie Greer, here with husband Ray, from California, has opted for a turkey and cranberry sandwich with chipotle sauce, while New Yorkers Michael and Marie McCue have veal goulash and a beetroot salad. “She’s known this place since she was a kid,” he says. “It’s the best,” Marie says. “It has a real neighbourhood feel.”

Veselka has survived every capricious eating trend that has blown through New York’s restaurant scene, especially around the East Village which is home to trendy eateries such as Momofuku Noodle Bar. “When no one would eat carbs”, laughs Birchand, “I thought ‘what would happen to my poor pierogies’ — but this stuff never dies. This place is so out of fashion, it’s fashionable.”

Birchand will retire in five years and pass the reins to his son — from his first marriage — Jason, 46, who started bussing tables here at 14 and now oversees front of house. He wants to open further branches, perhaps on the Upper West Side, then “colder US cities with immigrant populations”, such as Chicago and Cleveland. “A big goal and a lot of work,” he says.

In the dying seconds of Monday’s game, at Veselka Bowery, the barman Dobriansky leads the Ukrainian supporters in a chant of “U-kra-iina”. When the final whistle sounds — Ukraine the 2-1 victors — the bar rings out to cheers and whooping.

“We’re at the head of the Group D table, now we just have to tie everything,” Dobriansky says. Nursing pierogies with sour cream and apple relish an elderly woman, Darak Genza (“my age is another question”) insists Ukrainian food is “healthy. I don’t eat much and I run around a lot.” Will the Ukrainians do well in Euro 2012? “They must,” she says stoutly, her tone brooking no possibility of defeat. “It might be safer not to watch the Ukraine-England game here next Tuesday,” Dobriansky advises me .