Gambrinus – Russian and Latvian Fried Dough
The culmination of my first night of the fried dough extravaganza in Southern California culminated at Gambrinus restaurant on the boardwalk near the Redondo Beach Pier. It seems oddly ironic that I keep returning to a place where I lived for so many years to truly amazing food for when I lived in Redondo, I was usually traveling outside the city for better dining experiences. This proved to be quite a special evening. After a multitude of empanadas from Argentina, Colombia, El Salvador, and Malaysia, our last stop for the evening was to be a departure from those versions of fried dough which predominated from warmer locales for Gambrinus’ cuisine was Russian.
We finally strayed away from the purely fried dough constraint and along with the experimental portion of the meal, ordered a Shuba salad, a traditional Russian salad with layers of pickled herring filets, potatoes, beets, carrots, chopped eggs and mayonnaise one on top of the other. Shuba apparently means “in a fur coat” and the grated egg which topped the offering did give it a furry appearance. Considering the amount of heavy, carb-laden delicacies we had consumed, it was a welcome respite with its clean, crisp flavors of beet and vinegary fish. The mayonnaise was not overpowering and the bit of egg brought just enough richness to counter the heavy food we had been consuming.
But we had already ordered more! It was admittedly a bit of a shock for me. Up until this point, all of the variations of fried dough that we had ordered had been appetizer portions; empanadas and fried puffs of nothing much larger than 2″ or 3″ but what was presented to us as entrées were sizeable portions that almost overwhelmed me! The belashi (apparently also known as belyashi) reminded me of a curling stone in shape and size; round, robust, and heavy. This golden wonder was easily 6″ or 7″ across and 3″ to 4″ high, stuffed with a rich concoction of well-season ground pork and was made with a decidedly thick dough; thicker than I really wanted. While the exterior portion of the dough was rich and tasty, the interior was more spongy than I wanted. I greatly enjoyed the dark, heady filling though and was a bit surprised by the small container of red sauce that was served alongside. Tasting a bit, Mr. R confirmed it was spicy Thai condiment that the owners served because “Americans want spicy things.” Not that the belashi was bland, but most Russian dishes are more muted in their tastes with the contrast provided by the accompanying pickled vegetables or pickled fish.
The other monstrously huge hunk of fried dough was a chebureki, which is more of a Georgian/Latvian dish than Russian (the owners of Gambrinus are from Latvia). Shaped in the empanada-like half moon, the chebureki spilled off the 8″ plate in all its flattened, crisp glory. Also filled with pork but with an entirely different flavor structure than the belashi. Here the meat flavors were more prevalent as the dough casing was thinner and less predominant, but also, this was so juicy that biting into the giant meat pie literally exuded (all over me), heady chunks of white pork with broth. I had to hold the dripping, succulent pie in a napkin and was both sorry I had eaten so much already but so happy at the confluence of flavors.
One other fried dough delicacy was on the menu which I had almost missed but going overboard as we were doing, had to be ordered and tried. Listed on their menu simply as “Garlic Bread,” this dish truly had one of those eyes-rolling-into-the-back-of-my-head experiences. The very same thin, half-slices of meager classic Russian brown bread – hearty and a favorite of mine with salmon – here was drenched with pure butter and garlic and then, with no additional breading, deep-fried and served warmed. So redolent and pungent with garlic and the richness of the butter shining through, I feel it is impossible to describe the impact that such pure, simple ingredients — so untraditionally prepared — can have. This simple offering of garlic fried bread will go down in the annals of one of the finest examples of unexpected genius and will be included in my Top Five of all favored fried doughs of all time. Now, a week later when writing this, I can still taste and crave it. So shockingly good.
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