Roxolana’s Garden | Restaurant Reviews | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper
Location: 856 Western Ave., North Side. 412-231-7696.
Hours: Mon.-Fri. 7 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5-9:30 p.m.; Sat. 6-9:30 p.m.; Sunday brunch 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers and salads $5-10; sandwiches $6-9; entrées $9-18
Fare: Traditional Ukrainian, with contemporary salads and American sandwiches
Atmosphere: Light, bright, casual café
Liquor: BYOB

This year marks the 100-year anniversary of one of the boldest moves Pittsburgh ever made off the football field: its annexation of Allegheny City, its neighbor and rival on the north bank of the Allegheny River. Smaller and on the whole wealthier than Pittsburgh, the historic city of Allegheny offered several plums to its conqueror, including the staggering collective wealth of its Millionaire's Row, in Allegheny West.

At the turn of the 20th century, the rarified avenues of Allegheny West would have been about as likely to house a Ukrainian restaurant as a corporate boardroom would have been to admit a Ukrainian. But at the turn of the 21st, a lot has changed. A community college occupies the millionaire's mansions it didn't tear down. And a couple blocks away, Western Avenue, once a middle-class residential address, evolved into a commercial corridor that thrived, declined, and lately has been striving for reversal. A Ukrainian restaurant could be just the unique attraction it needs.

Roxolana's Garden -- named after the daughter of owner Irene Horajsky, a former translator raised in Chicago's Ukrainian Village -- contains both a traditional deli counter and a sit-down restaurant decorated with Ukrainian folk art and romantic cityscapes of Kiev. In the spring, a garden for outdoor dining will be available. The menu consists primarily of authentic dishes including borscht and shashlyk (veal kabob). For those without culinary passports, there are also burgers and other dependable American options, plus salads whose combinations of ingredients, such as black-eyed peas and pineapple, we can't imagine are from the Old World. Moreover, the confident, creative touch evident in these salads seems to imbue even the menu's traditional offerings with a surprising sense of peasant dishes as modern cuisine.

We first tried Roxolana's borscht and found it utterly unlike the magenta, pureed-beet soup we've had at Russian restaurants. No, this borscht was more like a chunky beef-and-vegetable soup, with a clear broth and firm pieces of beet and carrot alternately taking center stage and ceding it to the equally strong flavors of beef and herbs. (Dill, in particular, is ubiquitous in Roxolana's dishes.) No matter what opinion you've formed of Russian borscht, you owe it to yourself to try it Ukrainian-style.

The soup of the day, sweet potato-apple, had the mildly sweet, mildly spicy character of holiday pie filling. Lightly blended, its texture remained rustic rather than smoothly pureed.

An appetizer portion of mini potato pancakes consisted of four palm-sized patties, piled high with tart sour cream and salty caviar. Moist without being heavy or gummy, the texture of the pancakes made them the perfect vehicles -- substantial yet understated -- for the decadent combination of toppings.

Pyrohy, like pierogi, were savory dumplings filled with coarsely mashed potato, onions and herbs, though a mite underseasoned for Jason's taste. The translucent homemade wrappers were, again, sprinkled generously with dill. Sauerkraut filling is also available, but on our next visit, we'd like to try the fresh cherry and blueberry pyrohy sprinkled with sugar -- a delicacy served by Irene Horajsky's parents in the restaurant they ran in Chicago.

Jason's entrée of stuffed cabbage could easily have served us both with two rolls bigger than most church-hall halupki. The filling was dominated by perfectly cooked, firm, individual grains of rice, interspersed with savory ground meat, and the cabbage leaf was tender without threatening to burst from the strain of its stuffing. Best of all, the excellent creamy tomato-mushroom sauce added a welcome note of tangy-sweet richness to this classic dish.

Angelique enjoyed her chicken paprikasz, prepared with de-boned strips of juicy breast meat. The chicken was sautéed and served in a red-orange sauce redolent with the distinctive savory, spicy and sweet notes of paprika. She only wished there had been more of this gravy, for it complemented the chunky mashed potatoes and mixed vegetables -- zucchini, carrots, broccoli and beans -- as well.

Crafting complexity and depth of flavor from often-humble ingredients, Roxolana's Garden brings the cuisine of Ukrainian immigrants to a neighborhood that once dined on filet mignon. We are all the richer for it.

Jason: 3 stars
Angelique: 3 stars

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