On the Southern Edge of Brooklyn, a Portal to Odessa

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If the knickknacks at the new outpost of Café Glechik remind you of your grandmother—the two-story Ukrainian restaurant on Sheepshead Bay Road is dressed with embroidery, old teacups and framed scenes of the Eastern European countryside—that’s appropriate, says Paul Tesler, who runs it with his father, Vadim. Paul’s own grandmother, after all, gave the place its start.

The first Café Glechik opened back in 1998, a sliver of a dining room next door to the tiny Coney Island Avenue post office, a block from the elevated subway tracks and the Riegelmann Boardwalk. But it wasn’t decor that drew diners to the place from day one. It was Tyslia Kozlova—Vadim’s mother, Paul’s grandmother—a woman known as one of the best Ukrainian cooks in Brighton Beach.

Beloved for both her beet-filled borscht (served with thick soured cream and sweet yeast-risen rolls) and her prowess with pelmeni (those fat-bottomed dumplings Ukrainians like to stuff with pork and veal and serve swimming in drawn butter), Kozlova didn’t just earn the respect of her countrymen and -women, but put Café Glechik on the radar of chowhounds nationwide.

That reputation actually began when the family lived not by the Atlantic Ocean, but by the Black Sea. Before the Teslers moved to Brighton Beach from Odessa, Vadim had run fine-dining restaurants while Kozlova catered lavish parties. But when the family came to the States in the mid-1990s—Paul and his family in 1994, followed by his grandparents two years later—the Teslers did what many new immigrants do: whatever they could.

So while Vadim worked at an eyeglass shop at a mall in Queens, Kozlova cooked for the family. There in the house they shared, she fed them “stew Odessa”—big tureens of braised short ribs so tender they’d collapse with a glance, surrounded by golden potatoes, floating in a beefy broth perfumed with the bright bite of garlic and dill and parsley. There were bowls of that borscht, whose purple tint had been perfected by Ukrainian cooks long before it was smartly stolen by neighboring Russians and Poles. Kozlova would smoke her own garlicky sausages—the Ukrainian answer to kielbasa—bake her own bread and ferment her own pickles: whole slices of tongue-tingly watermelon, plus fat little Kirbys and whole green tomatoes. To wash it all down she made a deep-purple home-brewed cherry quaff so sweet and fruity it tasted like jam in a glass.

But most often, she made the sacred comfort food of any Ukrainian: dumplings. At the dining room table, she rolled out pounds of pelmeni—tubby pasta purses stuffed with meat—and countless variations of vareniki, wriggly crescent moons filled with sweet cheese and berries or mushrooms and caraway-scented sauerkraut. One by one, she pinched, tucked and patted them into flour-dusted perfection.

Word of Kozlova’s nimble fingers soon spread in their Ukrainian neighborhood. Family members brought friends, and then those friends brought friends, and that kitchen table was often crowded. Kozlova started selling a few frozen bags of dumplings here and there, and soon “she would wake up at 5,” remembers Paul, “and work till 9 at night.”

Paul’s father saw the writing on the dining room wall, and an opportunity. After initial resistance, Kozlova relented, and they decided to open a restaurant decorated with sunflowers, a symbol of Ukraine, and to name it after the traditional earthenware pots that hold pelmeni, Kozlova’s most coveted specialty.

Paul was in fifth grade the day the first Café Glechik opened, and after school, he went to the restaurant: “When I turned the corner on Coney Island Avenue,” he remembers, “I saw a big line. I didn’t realize at first that people were standing in line for us.”

New York’s Ukrainians and Russians have done exactly that ever since, as have city food-lovers lured by continual rave cheap-eats reviews in the Times, the Village Voice and, most recently, No Reservations. Multi-culti customers take the Q for the Mediterranean-meets-Eastern-European specialties of Odessa: whole grilled fish, ground lamb kebabs called lyulya with slivered purple onions and parsley, a slew of cold salads like the “spring”—chopped boiled egg with sour cream, green onion, cucumber and radish—or the silky smoky mash of eggplant, sweet peppers, garlic and onion sometimes called “caviar.” They order endless shots of vodka, and tuck into pot after pot of pelmeni and heaping platters of vareniki, the latter boiled with butter or fried and served with sour cream and a caramel tangle of frizzled onions. The menu is nearly the same as it was in 1998, but nobody is complaining.

But there has been one big change in the kitchen at Café Glechik: After spending nearly every single day in her restaurant for a decade and a half, Kozlova passed away last December.

She may be gone in body, but her spirit—and her recipes—live on. Vadim now oversees the kitchen. Like many veteran Café Glechik staffers, he was well-schooled by his mother on the proper way to make not just red and green borscht—the latter featuring rice, egg and lemony sorrel—but every item on the long-standing menu. (The crew of Ukrainian ladies Kozlova painstakingly trained just to make pelmeni in the back room on Coney Island Avenue—they also sell frozen dumplings to half the businesses near the boardwalk—have in recent years been joined by a Mexican senora or two, who bring their own hot sauce.)

But while Kozlova may be gone, her family’s plans are growing fast. Paul and his father opened that second Glechik a mile north from the first little café in Sheepshead Bay—a pretty space that boasts not just spiffed-up decor but three times as many seats and a real bar. And in a move that will take Café Glechik even farther from Tyslia Kozlova’s dining room table, they have plans for more outposts in both downtown Manhattan and Los Angeles.

In the meantime, to sate its customers, Café Glechik delivers to all five boroughs, which means you can have your borscht brought right to Bushwick; or your pelmeni to Park Slope. But why stop there? Start with one of a half-dozen Ukrainian cold appetizers—bowls of salty sheep’s cheese and slivered tomatoes, whole smoked mackerel, platters of homemade ham, beef tongue and cured salmon, all sliced thin and served with a pink dollop of homemade horseradish mayo. Order a lacy-skinned crepe, wrapped around sweet fresh farmer’s cheese; some sumac-dusted lamb chops, grilled and served on the bone; or a crispy-crusted pork schnitzel, pounded paper thin and served with a pile of homemade fries blasted with sea salt, chopped garlic and dill. It’ll all come delivered in a sunflower-painted mini-van bought just for the job. Like the signage, the license plate reads “Glechik,” but we can’t help but think it really ought to say “Grandma,” in honor of the woman who gave a great gift not just to her own little community, but now, to the entire city and beyond.

Photo credit: Vicky Wasik

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