Odessa is a city on the shores of the Black Sea in Ukraine. Its port made it a gateway to trade between the Russian Empire and the rest of the world. As a result it was a very diverse city with influences from Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Caucasus. Philadelphia’s “Little Odessa” is centered on Bustleton Avenue in North East Philadelphia. Cyrillic writing is everywhere, and there is Russian music playing in the stores. Tucked away in one of the strip malls along Bustleton Avenue is Palace Royal, a glatt kosher “Russian” restaurant. I invited my mother to join me there for lunch.
Stepping into the restaurant feels like arriving at a wedding. The tables are elegantly set, with flowers everywhere. The restroom is very clean. There is a small stage set up with all the musical instruments for the restaurant’s band. In the evenings during the week, there is jazz music. Over the weekends there is Russian, Israeli, and all sorts of contemporary music. We were welcomed warmly by our waiter and shown to our table. The menu reflects the diversity of Odessa. There are dishes from Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Austria, Persia, Turkey, and Greece among others. Everything is glatt kosher.
More after the jump.
It wasn’t always this way. Steve Klipatch came to the U.S. from Odessa in 1992. He grew up knowing that he was Jewish, but with no observance at all. “It was safer for me not to participate in Jewish life at the time in Ukraine,” he explained. A professional musician and chef, he opened a restaurant shortly after arriving in this country. For ten years, he ran a restaurant that was not kosher. With time, he developed a longing to learn about his Jewish tradition. Many of his friends and acquaintances who came here from the former USSR were also very interested in learning about their Jewish heritage. Steve met Rabbi Boruch Shlain from Congregation Beth Solomon Kollel and Community Center. This Kollel has young Rabbis from the United States, Russia, and Israel. Its mission is to for these Rabbis to share their knowledge with anyone in the community who is interested, no matter what language they speak. Steve started learning Torah with Rabbi Shlain, who is originally from Belarus. As a result of these studies, Steve became observant. About three years ago, Steve Klipatch had an epiphany. “I thought to myself, I am feeding other Jews; I should be feeding them kosher food,” he said. Steve Klipatch decided to transform his restaurant into a glatt kosher establishment. After he did this, his clients changed. He used to get more Russians. Now more Americans and Israelis came to his establishment. Russians who are becoming more observant are now attracted to Palace Royal as well.
There is a part of his heritage that Steve Klipatch did get in Odessa and is keeping. He has the recipes from his grandmothers’ kitchens. At Palace Royal, the gefilte fish, Challah, Borscht, chicken noodle soup, blintzes, and cakes are cooked from recipes handed down in the family.
We started our meal with a very traditional Ukrainian dish, Blintzes with Salmon roe caviar. The crepes were paper thin, and the golden orbs of salmon caviar burst with flavor over our tongues. A Levantine specialty that we could not pass up was the Kubbeh with mushrooms. This stuffed bulgur croquette arrived at our table perfectly crispy and crunchy, with a deliciously flavorful filling. We had to try the Assorted Pickled Vegetable Platter, a combination of crunchy half sour cucumbers, half sour cabbage and carrot slaw, and half sour cherry tomatoes. It was delicious and refreshing! This was followed by a Turkish dish called Ki Kil’ with meat, which is a flat bread filled with spiced minced meat. It was very flavorful and satisfying. We concluded our meal with two desserts. I got the homemade blintzes with pareve ice cream and berries. My mom got the rugalah with ice cream and fruits. My blintzes were delicious. When my mother bit into her chocolate rugalah, she exclaimed, “Wow!” She told me that in that instance she was transported back to Rishon LeZion, Israel in 1952, to her mother’s kitchen. This was the exact same cake that her Polish-born mother used to bake for Shabbat. I saw a tear glistening in the corner of her eye as she told me that she hasn’t tasted a cake like this in twenty-five years.
I would like to come back with my family on a Saturday or Sunday night, when the room is full and the band is playing. We can bring our own kosher wine or vodka. There are so many delicious foods left to taste on the menu. Maybe I will get to meet Rabbi Shlain. It is a glatt kosher restaurant, so he can indulge. And the Rabbi’s favorite dish? Shnitzel.