Saturday, May 12, 2007

Continent European Deli: Gastronomic Glasnost in La Jolla


Sometimes, usually when a holiday comes, I get so nostalgic for the large family gatherings of my childhood I feel I can almost will myself back in time. It’s a visceral longing for big boisterous gatherings around food so plentiful it could practically collapse a table. And, not just any food, but traditional Eastern European dishes.

I was a lucky kid growing up with two sets of grandparents close by. My grandmothers were excellent home cooks and my grandfathers loved to eat. Actually, we all did and we ate very well. Big bowls of steaming chicken soup with won-ton-like kreplach or golf-ball sized matzoh balls; platters of stuffed cabbage, sweet and juicy with a ground beef and prunes; crispy roasted chicken; tender brisket; kasha varnishkes (bow tie pasta); chopped liver or pickled herring on slices of mini rye or pumpernickel bread; utterly sinful sweet noodle kugel (pudding) made with cream cheese and sour cream. The list goes on and on. The recipes were passed down, but it’s rare that my mother, sister or I make any of them today You need to have a large clan to feed to justify that and they just aren’t around anymore.

Walking into the Continent European Deli brought a lot of those remembrances of things past back in a rush. Behind the counter is an assortment of foods I don’t often encounter anymore: smoked fish, a line up of gorgeous sausages, stuffed cabbages, sour pickled tomatoes, a variety of salads, dark rye breads, sweet and savory piroghkis, even homemade gefilte fish. Plus, shelves filled with products that anyone from Russia, Poland, Bulgaria, Latvia, Hungary, you name it in Eastern Europe, would find familiar and comforting.

Russian chocolates, cookies and candies in festive packaging filled one wall.

On the opposite wall were items ranging from deep red sour cherry preserves, perfect for topping French vanilla ice cream, to various vegetable spreads, sauces, Russian teas and canned fish.

Even cans of German cod liver that sent shivers down my spine, but which is apparently eaten as a spread on bread.

All this is the doing of owners Irina Kanevsky and Edward Serper. They opened their first shop in 1995 on University Ave. near San Diego State University. The following year, they opened a second one in La Jolla in a strip mall off Regents Rd., just north of La Jolla Village Dr. This one, larger and with a kitchen in the back, offers homemade prepared foods and pastries. That’s where I was on Friday afternoon with Irina as my culinary tour guide.

Irina, who is from an industrial town in Ukraine, came to the U.S. shortly after the Soviet Union fell. She recognizes that many of her customers are émigrés who long for the comfort of food from home, but also encourages people who may not be familiar with the cuisine to come in and try it. “I like when people are open to tasting something new,” she says.

Irina prepared a couple plates for me filled with little tastes of different salads and foodstuff. First I tried a slice of suluguni, or village cheese, a whole milk cheese (above left). It reminded me of mozzarella but saltier. Alongside the suluguni were thin slices of sausage (above right). On the top was a Moscow Servelat, a tasty mildly-seasoned, semi-smoked pork sausage. A servelat is a German or Swiss sausage, originally made with pork and brain (brain is no longer used). In the middle was a New Moscow cured salami, also pork, but with a slightly smoky flavor. Below that was something I knew well but hadn’t tasted in years, a Jewish-style beef salami, perfectly dried and wonderfully chewy. The Continent European Deli has 90 varieties of sausages at any given time.

I also sampled a little tongue sausage, ideal for a sandwich on corn rye with deli mustard, and a handsome Canadian sausage. Officially called Old Forest Salami, it’s commonly called “flower salami” because of its shape.

Continent European Deli’s salads are a delight and perfect if you’re entertaining and want prepared appetizers. I was shocked that I enjoyed the beet salad (I’ve never managed to like beets) but it was a perfect blend of beets, walnuts, prunes, garlic and mayonnaise. I also got a kick out of the beet vinaigrette salad made with beets, potatoes, pickles, carrots and sauerkraut. This unusual combination of ingredients produces what Irina says is one of her most popular dishes. It’s simultaneously sweet, salty, crunchy and chewy. Taste buds work overtime to take it all in at once and its worth it. Equally delicious are the eggplant salads. One is like an eggplant caviar; in this salad the eggplant is baked and the result is a creamy concoction perfect for spreading on crackers. The other eggplant salad is made up of pieces of sautéed eggplant that can stand on its own with a fork.

A Russian potato salad with chicken, called Olyvie, was next. Very nice flavors and also very popular in the store. The Israeli salad—eggplant, garlic and mayonnaise—is another winner. The flavors come together to create a smooth, mild taste. The mushroom salad, however, packs a garlicky punch. If you love garlic, you’ll love this. I found the beef salad—marinated, shredded and blended with garlic and other spices—unusual and delicious, maybe something I’d use in a sandwich with lettuce and thin sliced red onion. Finally came the crab salad, similar to the Olyvie but with crab instead of chicken. It was good, but I preferred the Olyvie.

Irina also heated up an oblong piroghki topped with sesame and poppy seeds and stuffed with a magnificent combination of chicken, prunes and mushrooms. These little appetizers are made with an easy to work sour cream-based dough, filled with either savory or sweet ingredients and then baked to crispy, golden flakiness.

There’s no one shape—the piroghkis at Continent European Deli come in small squares, triangles and rectangles—and here they are filled with potato (like a knish filling, but lighter), cabbage (with its grated carrots, it’s a little sweet but oddly reminiscent of sauerkraut), egg and onion or even apple (kind of like a turnover in this case, but the filling is made of just slightly crunchy slivered apples—not lumpy chunks—happily not overly sweet).

While sitting and chatting at a table with Irina, I noticed a rack next to me filled with bags with confusing contents. Since the print was in Cyrillic, I couldn’t make out what they were. Sunflower seeds, she said, laughing. Next to them were bags of buckwheat from different countries, used to make kasha, a common sidedish literally meaning “porridge.”

Looking around, I found a number of other unfamiliar products. I could happily eat any kind of smoked fish, even smoked eel (something I first discovered decades ago in Amsterdam). The deli has a wide selection, including mackerel, salmon and sturgeon. But what were those little fish in the container? Dry moiva, I was told. These are apparently a great accompaniment to beer.

And, those browned, sausage-like items on the red platter? Homemade gefilte fish. Hmmm. I’ll save that for my next trip, but I did buy one of the cheese and raisin pancakes on the platter next to the gefilte fish. Tasting it at home, I found it to be in the same family as a cheese blintz (like a crepe) and imagined combining the ricotta cheese filling of a blintz with the blintz batter to get a pancake like this.

I’m a sucker for fun packaging. I have no idea what baby bologna tastes like, but the cherubs won me over. I’ll try it soon.

Below the baby bologna and the rows of cheese above were stacks of bread.

Since I adore a good, dense black bread I selected a loaf of organic Latvian rye. Slice this very thin and toast it to get the most of its dark, nutty flavor. It’s great with a little butter and honey or sliced cheese.

So, what’s for desert? Continent European Deli has freshly made baklava and a variety of cakes and other pastries. On the candy wall, my eye caught sight of packages of chocolate-covered something, which I discovered were chocolate-covered marshmallows. I had to try one, although Irina advised me that it would be different from what I expected. Sure enough, this was not like eating the top of a Mallomar. The ingredients list “fruit sauce” along with egg whites and agar-agar chocolate. The fruit flavor is nonspecific but it’s there and very enjoyable.

I also took home what I thought was a bar of chocolate. The elegant packaging, showing two ballet dancers in front of the Bolshoi Theater, actually contains slim, individually wrapped pieces of semi-sweet chocolate with crushed hazelnuts and French brandy. These will be parceled out slowly over the weeks.

You could get lost in all the different products sold here and if you’re not from Eastern Europe, the offerings can be confusing. Don’t be put off. I found the women behind the counter to be very helpful, so ask questions and ask for tastes. The La Jolla deli has seating inside and out, so you can also sit down and enjoy a meal.

Continent European Deli is located at 4150 Regents Park Row in La Jolla and 5961 University Ave.

Have some thoughts about Continent European Deli or other ethnic markets in San Diego? Do you have a favorite neighborhood market or shop that carries unique or unusual foodstuff? Let me know or add to the conversation by clicking on comments below: