Gold Medal Blinchiki for Vegetarians at Cinderella
With the second week of the Winter Olympics in Sochi underway, we turn our attention to Russia. Though San Francisco's Little Russia is in the Outer Richmond, Russian eating in the city is centered on Cinderella Bakery and Café in the Inner Richmond. Mostly a bakery, Cinderella does have a tiny café component with mostly outside seating. Just pretend Balboa Street is Red Square as you dine al fresco on blinis and be glad San Francisco winters aren't quite like Moscow's.
One of Russia's great and unique contributions to the culinary world comes from the pancake family. Blinchiki (the real name for blinis) closely resemble traditional savory crêpes of Brittany. There, the buckwheat base makes the batter very tart when eaten on its own. Cinderella's blinchiki batter also had a similar sour punch but without the buckwheat.
Since rye bread is so important to the Russian diet (and you see loaves of it everywhere at Cinderella), I asked my dining companion who was born in Moscow if rye could be in the blinchiki. Nope. He explained the bitter profile is purely from buttermilk and very little sugar. Sweeter fillings for the blinchiki require more sugar in the batter, much like French dessert crêpes.
The blinchiki itself is slightly thicker and doughier than the typical crêpe. They're great on their own at Cinderella ($2.99) or with some Nutella -- even if that's not Russian at all ($4.50).
Of the filled blinchiki, spring for the ones bursting with woodsy mushrooms and onions ($4.50). They come to the table looking like soft, doughy Hot Pockets, and have the ubiquitous duo of Russian garnishes: a sprinkling of dill and a side of sour cream. A close runner-up to savory blini are the classic sweet cheese filled ones with jam for dipping on the side, like an inside-out strawberry cheesecake.
Elsewhere on the café menu, Russians love their pickled vegetables so start there and the eggplant sautéed with tomatoes. Since none of the entrées are vegetarian, fill the meal out with different dumplings and pie slices, such as the potato vareniki and a wedge of cabbage and egg pie. Whatever you do, wash it all down with the 1 percent alcohol kvas and don't miss the bird's milk cake for dessert.
You do need to be wary as vegetarian in a few cases. Cinderella's borscht uses chicken stock and the bell pepper entrée includes ground beef in its stuffing. When in Russia, that can be an issue if your Cyrillic reading skills aren't strong. Vegetarians can grow tired of the banal potato-filled dough traps as well. Definitely pounce when you see options like mushrooms and asparagus. The country is slowly learning the Alice Waters philosophy.
But there are several enjoyable vegetarian items here that you can enjoy at home like the medal winners might in Sochi. It's the mushroom and onion blinchiki that takes the gold.
436 Balboa, 751-9690.