144 2nd Ave, East Village, New York, NY
Review by SuSu, MaceVindaloo, Diana, IrishLaddy
It seems almost trivial or perhaps mistakenly quaint to assume that people dressed in "alternative" fashions must be bad. Don't we all know punkers and gothdresser and heavy metal headbanging types who are actually very nice, very kind, very caring people? We were in what used to be the Ukrainian ghetto of NYC (we mean the word "ghetto" in it's academic sense a community within a larger community), which is often overrun by alternative artistes.
Finally, the female half of the lanky couple came over. She leaned down and and whispered, "I don't know if you're not from around here, but you should keep your purse between your feet. Leaving it hanging on the back of your chair like that might be too tempting to someone." We thanked her, and she shyly shuffled away, having finished her meal and her good deed.
You know that you shouldn't judge books by their covers, or nice people by their fashion choices, or restaurants by their apparent schtick. Veselka looks like a heavy-handed eastern European deli, with 1970s overtones. And when you think of eastern Europe, you think of a lot of ingredients like lard, potatoes, cabbage ... nothing wrong with that, but consumption of such foods needs to be severely limited if one doesn't want to have a close and personal relationship with a cardiologist or a surgeon!
Veselka has a sense of humor about it. Their plates are emblazoned with graphics which equate the roundness and heaviness of the earth to a Ukrainian meatball. You have to love self-depricating humor. And their walls have murals of the famous and almost-famous, all apparently enjoying the food at Veselka. The place has been renovated and cleaned up, so it doesn't feel like a grimy lower-eastside dive which happens to be open 24 hours and caters to the post-club fried breakfast eaters.
The food is good, despite its heaviness. That's to be expected, considering the ethnic heritage and the genre and geography of this eatery. The waitresses are attractively clad and efficient, and will give you good advice; sometimes you'll get it whether you ask for it or not. Like, I asked for a particular dessert and the waitress said (with a heavy accent), "You will be sad. Have the banana cream tart. It's gorgeous!" And it was ...
They had pirogies stuffed with all sorts of things, like ham and cheese, or mushrooms and sauerkraut, or good ol' potato and cheddar. There are even more newfangled concoctions containing goat cheese and arugula, highlighted as the pirogy of the month. And despite being located in a traditionally Jewish enclave, they do have a ham and cheese pirogy. Again, don't judge a pirogy by it's fried skin!
The bread which came out is a challah, sliced thin and very good. The side-salads are mesclun with a poppyseed dressing on the side ("on the side" is important, remember) though you can get dowdier dressings, too. The name of the beer was unpronounceable to us Anglo-Saxon speakers (though its spelled Obolon), but was pretty good, though pretty standard stuff, really.
We did order many pirogies as appetizers, and opted for a cup of Ukrainian borscht as our soup. It was really delicious and was quite chunky. Other borschts were thin, but not this one. We'd come back just for the borscht, though we'd try other soups, too.
To do justice to the Central European dishes, we ordered "Ola's Famous Veal Goulash," Bigos, and Vegetarian Combination Platter, which came with a Meatless Stuffed Cabbage containing mushrooms and sauerkraut, and three pirogies (potato, cheese, cabbage), kasha with mushroom sauce, and a soup and salad. The option to not have meat is reflective of Kosher laws, as well as fashion you can have your comfort food and not have too much meat. And this combo is touted as the best way to ease your way into Ukrainian food! Veal Goulash is a stew made with peppers and herbs. The resulting gravy and tender meat is served over mashed potatoes. Bigos is like the French choucroute garni, a sort of braised roasted pork and sauerkraut dish also served with mashed potatoes. The latter two came with a choice of sides: chopped beets with horseradish, cole slaw, carrots, potato pancakes, kasha, fried potatoes, egg noodles, vegetable of the day, etc. Plenty to choose from and a LOT of food. It was all good, and being that we had ordered one less dish than we had people, we managed to finish it all, too. And we really wanted to eat it all, too!
We finished with excellent coffee and the aforementioned delicious banana cream pie, and felt over-full but very well-fed and satisfied. We had this food in the springtime when the weather was turning warmer. It was good, but we bet it's superlative when the weather is really cold. We look forward to coming back and trying the Ukrainian meatballs next time, to see if they are as cosmic as implied on the dinnerware!
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