I’ll be honest – proud as I am of my heritage, traditional Russian cuisine is not high on my list of must-have eats. Tending to be on the overly rich, not to mention labour-intensive side, these old favorites have mainly been relegated to mom’s holiday dinners and the essential New Year’s liquor-and-mayonnaise-laden table, everyday meals leaning instead towards simpler, lighter fare. Not to mention, plenty of my Soviet childhood food recollections leave much to be desired: gluey farina cereal, sickly sweet birch juice (yes, birch as in the tree), and the rare banana that was looked forward to as a special-occasion treat.
But then, there were also grandma’s paper-thin crepes, filled with chopped up sausage or sweet apples; juicy cabbage rolls in tangy tomato sauce; vatrushka, buttery pastry stuffed with sweet cheese. And occasionally, removed here from the comforts of matriarchal home-cooking, I’ll get a hankering for one of these flavours from my past, an edible security blanket. Not enough of a hankering, mind you, to actually go through the trouble and time involved in concocting one of these old-school creations. Luckily enough, I have found a haven: Cinderella Bakery and Cafe, in the Inner Richmond’s Little Russia, a spot to satisfy nostalgic cravings for homey, carb-loaded, sour-cream-drenched deliciousness that has become our must-stop (and sometimes the main destination) for any excursion out to the city.
With all due respect for my fellow comrades, some of my past encounters with expat Russian food establishments have not been the most stellar: at best, overpriced, over-gilded affairs; at worst, Soviet-style institutional, with a musty hint of depression. Not so with Cinderella. Though tiny with barely a handful of tables, the bright, warm cafe manages to feel cozy, not cramped, casual without skimping on quality, and traditional without being stodgy – like stopping by a (very culinary talented) friend’s for a cup of tea.
The first glance is enough to pull in a bread fiend like me, eyes glazed and salivating zombie-style. Right upon stepping in, you’re greeted by rows upon rows of just-baked beauties: flaky croissants, fruit- and raisin-studded pastries, and piles of plump, golden-cheeked pirozhki – dense brioche-like buns, fried or baked with savory fillings: beef with cheddar or gorgonzola, potato, mushroom. If you’ve never had one, think a fluffier, softer empanada. On the very slightly lighter side are Siberian-style pies, squares of puff pastry layered with meat, cabbage, egg, or salmon.
Across the shop, it’s all about the sugar – cakes, pastries, and cookies galore. Here you’ll find the quintessential Napoleon, stacked high with layers of airy puff pastry and custard, the pride of any self-respecting Russian cook; honey cake with velvety buttercream; decadent flourless chocolate torte; cream-filled éclairs and heaps of rich shortbread.
But control yourself. Like at a true Russian meal, pacing oneself is necessary here, because there’s always more on the way. The cafe’s signature offerings up on the chalkboard menu range from appies to full-on meaty entrees. All the usual-suspect favorites are present: Olivie and beet Vinaigrette salads; borscht and solyanka (a soup of pickles and various meats, tastes better than it sounds); Chicken Kiev and cabbage rolls; pelmeni and vareniki (dumplings with a variety of fillings); roasted buckwheat kasha. The borscht (a hearty beet soup, for those of you unfamiliar) comes out steaming and ruby red, with sour cream and a sprinkling of fresh dill, accompanied by chewy rye bread (“grey bread” in wistful ex-Soviet terms); and the pelmeni are succulently satisfying on a cool foggy day, miniature parcels of spicy meat wrapped in delicate dough, served in broth or on their own, topped with fried onions.
Then there are the blinchiki, feather-light crepes filled with meat, golden caviar, or, my personal kryptonite, sweet farmer’s cheese, tangy and creamy, served with raspberry jam and, you guessed it, more sour cream. A comforting throwback to nursery-food memories are the cherry vareniki, triangular dumplings filled with tart cherry compote – a slightly weird notion for the uninitiated, like a fruity pasta, yet surprisingly tasty. To lubricate all that eating, the cafe serves up a full espresso drink menu, brewing local Ritual coffee, alongside an assortment of cold drinks including kvas (don’t ask what it is, just try it) and Russian beer.
For those with some Slavic blood in them, Cinderella is a taste of the past, all the good with none of the bad. And if you’ve never tried Russian food before (and you should), it’s like a visit to the Russian grandma you never had; the only thing missing is the vodka. And of course, as with any decent Russian host, you can’t leave without some more treats lovingly packaged to take with you – in this case, fresh-baked bread, to-go salads, or the bakery’s famous poppy-seed strudel.
Cinderella Russian Bakery and Cafe, 436 Balboa St, San Francisco.
Kate Missine is a domestic diva, shopping addict, and worshiper of all things delicious. When she’s not chasing after her toddler son, Kate can be found stirring things up in the kitchen, scouring grocery aisles for strange ingredients, or indulging in much-needed retail therapy. She holds a B.A. in Communications and Publishing and accepts pastries and shoes as currency.
By Kate Missine