Russian cuisine often gets overshadowed by its flashier Western European neighbors. It might not have the flair of the French or the universal appeal of the Italians, but by damn, it'll keep you warm while you endure a psychologically and physically punishing winter. That's something I experienced first hand—in another life, I spent two years in Ukraine as an LDS missionary—and I've never forgotten it. The cuisine of Eastern Europe is designed to sustain life through the same winter that defeated Napoleon and Hitler. It's not enough for the food to be nourishing—it's got to keep one's mind and spirit satisfied as well. For a first-hand taste of what I'm talking about, check out The Galley Grill (1295 E. Miller Ave., 801-466-9224).
It's difficult to know what to expect from a restaurant full of ramshackle naval décor juxtaposed against laminated prints of vintage Russian advertisements. As it turns out, The Galley Grill sprang from the bones of a defunct seafood restaurant, and some of the original wall art remains. Russian cuisine isn't particularly emphatic on seafood, so don't let the decorative fishing nets and fake starfish convince you otherwise. Instead, let the Russian pop music in the background or the Slavic game shows on the flat screen take you to the environs of the former USSR.
While the naval aesthetic doesn't quite match the rustic, stick-to-your-ribs combo of carbs, meat, fresh dill and pickled veggies that makes Russian food so tasty, rest assured that the Galley serves up the good stuff. If it's your first time sampling Russian food, I suggest starting with a bowl of tasty little beef-filled dumplings called pelmeni ($7.79 for a half order; $10.99 for a full) or the potato-filled vareniki ($7.49/$10.69), served with a lot of sour cream and topped with dill. Personally, I tend to lean toward the vareniki, but it's an absolute necessity to sample these Russian equivalents of ravioli or gyoza. The outer dough is slightly thicker than other dumplings you might have tasted, and the texture always packs the right amount of toothsome chew.
For the main course, there are a number of paths to take. Those in the mood for a strict meat-and-potatoes kind of gastronomic journey should consider the pork shashlik ($12.79). Shashlik is a skewer of meat cooked over an open flame and served on a bed of fresh veggies, boiled potatoes and a side of adjika, an herbaceous salsa that hearkens to South American chimichurri. Galley offers chicken and lamb varieties, but the pork is the way to go. Its texture and flavor are enhanced by the cooking process, making the meat tender and juicy. It goes extremely well with the adjika. The Galley also accommodates those who can't choose just one variety with the shashlik platter ($32.29), which is a glorious mosh pit of all three skewers.
If meat skewers aren't really your thing, then the cabbage rolls ($12.99) or goulash ($13.49) are solid bets. I have fond memories of learning to make cabbage rolls with a salty babushka while a horrendous snowstorm raged outside, so they always make me a tad sentimental. They're a bit like Greek dolmas, but the grape leaves are replaced by boiled cabbage and they're cooked in a tomato-and-onion sauce. They arrive slathered in sour cream and dill, and are a nice way to open up the palate to traditional Russian flavors. The goulash is a dish tailor made to get you through a Westeros-caliber winter. It's a piping hot plate of sliced beef and veggies stewed in a brown gravy you can feel in your bones. It's served with a giant side of rice, and mixing the two elements together is comfort food at its finest.
Venturing into the fringes of the Galley's menu, it's definitely worth noting that their borscht ($5.99), a hearty crimson soup made with stewed beets and cabbage, is another tasty way to heat up when it's cold outside. The honeycake ($6.79) is a towering testament to the Russian tendency of crafting desserts that emphasize flavor and texture over pure sweetness. It's a beautifully arranged slice of thin cake layers, spread with equally slim layers of buttercream and creamed honey. And I have to mention kvass, a trademark Russian beverage that's essentially nonalcoholic beer made through an unholy process of letting rye bread ferment in water for a few days. The result is something singular and bizarre. I can't say that I like the stuff—it pretty much tastes like kombucha made from Wonder Bread—but it's definitely a must for people seeking an authentic Russian experience.
I'll admit I indulge in sentimentality when it comes to The Galley Grill. The music, the sour cream, the cabbage—it all holds a special place in my heart because of the time I spent in Ukraine. But even as I've expanded my culinary horizons into other geographical locales, I still think Russian food holds its own in the international food scene. The Galley Grill serves the kind of food that provides a direct conduit to the history, culture and people who created it, and that's the kind of place that makes going out to eat a true adventure.