We've got more snow here in Washington, D.C., than they have in Sochi, and it's colder. But still it's hard not to dream about being at the Winter Olympics, especially since reports from athletes and spectators say that the food in Sochi is beyond delicious.
There's khatchapuri, a pizza-like Georgian cheese pie that would be perfect for nibbling while walking aside the Black Sea. And solyanka, a salty-spicy-sour Russian soup that would warm us up after a chilly morning watching triple toe loops. Some kabobs, of course, either the pork chunks known as shashlik or ground lamb like a Turkish kofta.
Just talking about Sochi food was enough to make Team Salt seriously hungry, so we trekked over to Mari Vanna, a Russian restaurant in downtown D.C., that's a hangout for NHL hockey star and Olympic player Alex Ovechkin.
Fortunately, the chef had been thinking Sochi, too. He made sure that khatchapuri and solyanka were on the menu. And that was just the start.
There was vinagret, a beet and potato salad, and Olivier salad with potatoes, peas and ham. Both are traditional for parties in Russian homes. Blini plain, with smoked salmon and sour cream, and stuffed with mushrooms. Beef Stroganoff with kasha. Kabobs. And borscht, ruby red from beets, rich with meat and sour cream.
Don't forget the rassolnik, a home-style Russian mushroom soup made tangy with chopped dill pickles. Chicken cutlets. Black bread. And fermented cabbage, lighter and much fresher than sauerkraut. Pelmeni, little meat dumplings with more sour cream, and maybe a dash of that spicy Caucasian pepper sauce adjika. Dear reader, we ate it all.
So is this Russian food or Ukrainian? Georgian or Greek? Central Asian? The answer is yes.
Sochi lies along ancient trade routes from Europe to Asia; cultures have been mingling here for centuries. During the Soviet era, when few were allowed to leave the boundaries of the USSR, a ticket to Sochi was a coveted perk. Think Miami, with comrades. (That's why they call it the "Russian Riviera.") And a big part of the perk was feasting on foods from nearby Georgia, Armenia or Azerbaijan, like that Georgian cheese bread.
"Sochi food isn't just Russian food," says Alexander Lokhin, a Moscow native who is brand chef for Mari Vanni. "It's what people who go on vacation like to eat."
But hose Soviet vacations could stretch for weeks, and at some point people may have craved a taste of home. That helps explain the solyanka, which is traditional Russian fare. "It's a really good winter soup," Lokhin says. He loads up his version with smoked ham and lamb, cabbage and tomatoes. Green and black olives and lemon slices give it the essential tang, and hint at sunshine and seashore, even in the depths of winter.
"If you can't come to Sochi," Lohkin says, "Come to us."
We're glad we did.