It's a Dr. Zhivago sort of evening when we finally pull up to Peter's Burg restaurant in a tiny strip mall across from Blue Ash Towne Square. Even though the Cold War is over, I had to be an intelligence operative to find this place. I spoke with three different people (all whose English was pretty limited) to get "Hunt Road" and "Yes, open."
We enter to find one long table of Russian-Americans raising glasses in a toast: It's a private party, and we're not invited. We have a good laugh as this all rings slightly symbolic. The party cheerfully bids Das Vedanya to the three of us.
On our return a few nights later, no one is in the restaurant except for staff. With the lack of patrons, and an interior decor of contemporary blue and metal, the restaurant at first feels cold and aloof.
Peter's Burg is advertised as a European-style café. Even though it has a strong Slavic lean (largely due to its Russian owner, Peter Karost), its menu is more indicative of the wide variety of cuisine available throughout the former Soviet Union.
Besides Russia and Ukraine (with its culinary history based on the peasant style of pre-revolutionary Russia), the Baltic countries of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia have greatly influenced the cuisine at Peter's Burg. There's also a strong Scandinavian emphasis on potatoes, pork, dairy products and fish. The area of the Caucasus — the republics of Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan — brings a definite Middle Eastern flavor with rice, lamb, chickpeas and a wealth of delicious fruits.
Probably for most of us, the word "borscht" conjures up a bowl filled with fuchsia-colored cream; so when our server suggested we try the Borscht ($2.50), I wasn't particularly looking forward to it and reluctantly agreed to share a bowl with my dinner guest. A covered brown crock arrived to reveal a steaming brew of cabbage, onions and tomatoes. With the first bite my reluctance gave way to delight. On this cold night I could have eaten a whole pot of this delicious soup; I would have finished the bowl if my partner had not stared me down for his share.
Entrées are a one-page selection, but all come with salad and a choice of rice or mashed potatoes. They're reasonably priced ($7.60-$13.75). My guest chose the Chohonbilly ($11.50), a traditional Georgian dish of chicken, onions, carrots and garlic in a spicy tomato sauce, sort of the Russian equivalent of the more familiar Chicken Cacciatore. With two scoops of mashed potatoes, he declared the dinner well-prepared and gratifying, further conveying his satisfaction by using his index finger to wipe the remaining sauce off the plate.
My dinner was equally scrumptious. Greek Salmon ($12.99) arrived perfectly grilled with a light, lemony sauce, and served with rice and hot cabbage as well as cold slaw, grated carrots, cucumber and tomato slices. All the vegetable sides were very fresh, with attention given to presentation. In fact, I was amazed that the two tomato slices, treated as insignificant on most plates and salads in area restaurants, were red-ripe and flavorful in the middle of Midwest winter.
Neither of the desserts advertised on the menu were available, and our server seemed somewhat ambivalent about them anyway. She was more enthusiastic about a cake that one of the cooks had made earlier in the day. It lacked a definitive name or description, and that intrigued us even more. Three layers of not-too-sweet chocolate cake — more European in its slightly drier texture — with a thin filling of toasted walnuts and sour cream was an enjoyable finish with our freshly-brewed coffee (a pot made just for us, since we were the only customers). I was reminded by my partner that I really need to learn how to share food as I scarfed most of this down too.
Even though the Russian community in Cincinnati is small (about a thousand-plus), Peter's Burg shows through its simple, delicious attention to detail that the great Russian pride continues to be strong — homestyle, comfort food fit for a czar. ©
Go: Hunt Road between Kenwood & Cooper in Blue Ash
Hours: Lunch: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Dinner: 5-10 p.m.
Prices: Inexpensive to reasonable
Payment: Major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Chicken and fish selections. Vegetarians are limited to two Mushroom features.
Other: No liquor license: Bring your own vodka.