|(Pasolini's Salo, no relation)|
NEW YORK GASTRONOMIC QUESTIONS TO PONDER -
NUMBER ONE: If you find yourself walking along West 19th Street in Manhattan and you see a Russian restaurant that you know nothing about, should you go in and order something you’ve never had before, and in fact have never actually heard of?
THE ANSWER. Obviously yes.
And so it was that the Loved One and I walked into Rasha Nasha, a Russian, and perhaps chiefly Ukrainian, restaurant, decorated in Soviet kitsch, and with enough varieties of vodka behind the bar, to destroy several livers.
We thought we’d play it safe, have drinks and an appetizer, see how that went, and if it was good then we’d order main courses. So we ordered some drinks and looked at the menu. We were at one of just three occupied tables: one drink came immediately, the other took fifteen minutes to arrive. But by then we’d already ordered the “Salo Plate”.
Call me untutored, I had never heard of salo before, but the menu described it as “cured thick slices of Pork Belly” - one plain, one coated in paprika, one in garlic and pepper. Well, I know what pork belly is, but the thing that came struck me as quite a long way from being pork belly. Salo it appears is slices of meat-free pork fat, which is to say it’s essentially the same as Italian lardo.
It was good, and the pickled vegetables it came with were great, but really it was just slices of fat, and there’s a limit to how good slices of cured pork fat can be. We decided to move on elsewhere for our main courses.
The Rasha Nasha staff were wonderfully friendly if not wonderfully speedy, and a waitress did ask whether we’d ever eaten salo before. When we said no, she was delighted that we’d been adventurous enough to try it. It is she told us, a Ukrainian specialty, and she indeed came from the Ukraine. One of the waiters was also Ukrainian she said, but she didn’t know where the chef came from.
Afterwards, reading around online, reviews of Rasha Nasha are mixed. Complaints about slow service are common, there are also complaints that on certain nights the place seems to be full of Russian mobsters and hookers, who get served long before others do. Well yes, I don’t suppose you make your mobster customers wait 15 minutes for a drink, but you can see why that’d be doubly annoying to the just plain folks. Reviews also mention a now-abandoned “happy hour” scheme, actually two hours, in which time you got all the vodka you could drink, for a mere 30 bucks. Did I mention destroyed livers?
Back home I consulted Jennifer McLagan’s magisterial Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient. She tells us that salo is so well-loved in Ukraine, that there are songs and poems written about it, and annual festivals, including one in Simferopol, the capital of Crimea, which has as its centerpiece a 30 foot square open face salo sandwich. (I wonder if recent events have disrupted things, but surely a love of salo is unlikely to be affected by civil disturbance).
You’d think there’d be plenty of pictures of that giant salo sandwich online, but this is the best I’ve come across (photo by Bruce G. Stumpf)
And yes, I think you’d be justified in complaining that it certainly doesn’t look as though it's thirty feet square.