There are four of us sitting at a long table at Dacha Restaurant and the eatery’s interior design is up for discussion. It’s not so much that any of us disagree on the Russian-Ukrainian restaurant’s open-air floor plan; we’re just not quite sure of its intended theme.
Are we in an alleyway somewhere in a small Russian town, as the faux wood windows and stacked stone walls next to us suggest? Or do the armchairs surrounding the fireplace at the restaurant’s entrance indicate a cozy cottage home?
We discuss all this over a hot bowl of borscht soup – hardly a dish for a warm October night about one month after summer’s end. It’s a flavorful Ukrainian dish that’s a cross between minestrone and tomato soup, and I imagine it more fitting for a bleak, cold winter night as seen in an a Chekhov play or read in a Dostoevsky novel than for a 70-degree-plus evening in Valley Village.
Misguided stereotypes of Eastern European life and weather aside, our experience of Dacha seems to be exactly what the restaurant intends – eating with friends in the comfort of our imaginary babushka's living room. The restaurant takes its name from the Russian word that describes the countryside cottages used as seasonal or second homes. The dashas were built on plots of land leased by the USSR-era government to trade unions and other organizations in order for people to grow food for themselves.
Andrey Sebrant, whose collection of online articles is linked to by the restaurant's site, writes the typical dasha is "just a cabin. Sometimes a shack. But it is very difficult to understand that it is not just a cabin and much more than a shack...This is the place to escape from the rash and the problems of a big city."
The dashas and the land upon which they sat became communities, writes Sebrant, and they are both "a resort and a farm – a place to rest and a place to work."
We strike up a conversation with our server, a tall Ukrainian-born twenty-something man, who tells us he's new at Dacha. He'd lived in Chicago before moving to LA; Illinois, he said, "was too cold."
Soon, he brings out our appetizers – a plate of tomatoes with feta cheese and a small stolichniy salad - arrive a short while later. The stolichniy salad, made of potatoes, peas, chicken, hardboiled eggs and pickles with a creamy dressing, is similar to American potato salad; the tomato dish is like the Italians' caprese, but with feta giving much more texture than mozzarella. Both are perfect refreshments for the summer-esque night.
We notice a fresh plate of vegetables in the hands of our server on its way to the table behind us, and our friend asks the two young men what they've ordered.
It's the spring salad, one of them tells us, and offers us a bite to try. Not only is this adventure in Russian food an inaugural one for me, but it's also the first time anyone at a restaurant in Los Angeles has offered to share their food with my table. (We politely decline and thank them anyway).
In the meantime, a Russian soap opera plays on three wall-mounted flat-screen TVs; next up comes a late-night talk show, followed by what looks like an Eastern European version of Jerry Springer. As we try to decode what's happening in the show, our entrees arrive at the table.
Our stomachs soon reach capacity as we share bites of the chicken kiev (a flavorful and juicy breaded-and-baked meat dish that spills out butter on the first cut), deruny (potato latkes that are a crisper and saltier than your average hash browns) and stuffed cabbage.
Dessert seems unlikely now – cheese blintzes looked like a sweet end to the meal. It's a good reason to stop by for another visit to this country home, hidden in plain sight but available to anyone who seeks a short relief from city life.
Dacha Russian Restaurant is located at 5338 Laurel Canyon Boulevard in Valley Village. Business hours Tuesdays through Sundays from noon to about 10:30 p.m.; call the restaurant (818) 509-5828 to confirm their hours as they may close early some days.
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