Get a gold medal in Russian eating

From the February 6, 2014 edition

Here’s a sad fact: There’s not a single Russian restaurant in Columbus. Compounding this bummer, it’s MEDIA SATURATION TIME for the Sochi Olympics. This means when features about Russian culture/food inevitably begin airing regularly — Newsflash: Russians have distinct dining traditions! — you could be staring at TVs wondering what all those intriguing edibles taste like. Unless you keep reading.

See, a little legwork — and schooling from my Russian pal (spasibo, Aleks!) — proved that our sizeable ex-pat Russian community sustains several hardcore local import stores. What’s more, these shops are stocked with enough inexpensive, ready-to-eat classics that you can easily host an authentic Russian cuisine/Olympics-watching party and will barely need to cook. But — we’re talking Russia here — you will need to drink.

That means shots of freezer-chilled vodka, and Aleks recommends buying Russian Standard. My vicarious Russian mentor — Gary Shteyngart, whose new book, “Little Failure,” again proves he’s the funniest “serious” writer in America — agrees, saying (in a recent interview) “Russian Standard is the best. It doesn’t have a story about how it’s been triple-filtered through a diamond in a rhinoceros's asshole, but it gets the job done.”

That taste of uninhibited Russian humor hints at the unsubtle flavors rampant in the cuisine Shteyngart grew up eating. Being the largest country in the world, regional preferences are definitely prevalent, but here are some useful generalizations: most Russians grow up loving smoky, pickly, earthy, pungent and sour/fermented things, but they also develop a sweet tooth for cookies, layer cakes, chocolates and various other individually wrapped candies. All right, let’s go shopping.

Columbus Russian-import specialists — I’m focusing on three, but there are several — offer similar, taste-of-home favorites. Still, there are store variances. Some are homey, like Romashka, which looks like a yellow house with an add-on. Clearly setting it apart, though, is its attached brother called the Russian Club — a cultural center providing instruction in language, art, chess, dance, you name it. Store-wise, Romashka’s a jammed-to-the-rafters little food emporium where owner Boris Vilenchuk points me toward the right jarred borscht (see sidebar for all culinary descriptions), hands out samples of hammy koreyka, and in-the-know patrons snap up smoked fish delicacies like Romashka’s incredible Semga.

Then there’s Euro Market, which has a diminutive cafe and feels like a tidy Russian bodega. Euro-M’s distinguishing deli case offers homemade goodies like Olivier Salad (aka “Olivye” or “Russian Salad”). About as indispensable to the Russian table as burgers and fries are to Americans, Olivier Salad is a must-have for any Russian party — and Euro-M’s is lively, rich and delicious.

Euro Delicatessen on the West side (there’s also a Dublin branch) recalls a bright and well-organized modern convenience mart (Note: “Euro” is a common descriptor for “Russian-y” shops). Euro-D has an eye-catching array of cakes and candies plus a couple meat cases stocked with sought-after sausages such as the impressive “Moscow Dry.”

While enjoying some of these typical Russian treats and watching the Olympics, I recommend sinking a special cocktail I just invented called the Sochi Mule. It’s a Moscow Mule, but substitutes kvass for ginger beer — stimulating!

And if hype-tastic snowboarder Shaun White nails — or tops — that “Yolo Flip” thing, sink two Sochi Mules! Be forewarned, though, that when White’s well-named band, Bad Things, gets its inevitable TV time, you might need to drink a whole lot more.