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Culture Corner is a feature on The Cheshire Herald website where we offer reviews on music, movies, books, theater, and restaurants, while giving you a heads-up on different events or venues that will let you get your creative fix.
For this installment, the Herald's editorial assistant Ellen Jarus Hanley shares her experience at a New York City eatery offering a very special lunch:
In 2007, U.K Prime Minister David Cameron, then leader of Britain’s Conservative Party, made what I’m sure he thought was an amusing statement to representatives of the British Art Council: “I hope you won’t be giving grants to too many one-legged Lithuanian lesbians.” (He later claimed he meant to say “dance troupes” instead of “lesbians.”)
Although I boast a Lithuanian heritage, I’m more amused than offended that comics—and apparently politicians—frequently adopt that proper adjective to suggest something or someone rare or exotic.
Rare? Okay, Lithuania is a pretty small country of only 3.2 million people, and the 2011 census numbers Americans of Lithuanian ancestry at a mere 712,165.
But exotic? I suppose that depends on the standard of measurement. If it’s the degree of difficulty in pronouncing, say, a Lithuanian name, well—you got me there. A case in point involves my own father, who was a musician in the U.S. Army band during World War II. Once, while he was stationed at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, the late comedian Red Skelton was on hand to entertain the troops. When it came time to introduce my dad—Sgt. Alphonse Jarusevicius (yah-ru-SE-vichus)—Red gave up, laughing, and said, “No wonder they give out serial numbers in the Army.”
I grew up with a lot of “-evicius”es and “-itis”es, and can’t help making an occasional joke myself. Just the other day, a friend told me she had Rheumatoid Arthritis and I immediately replied, “I think I went to grammar school with him.” (Apologies to my friend.)
But seriously, almost any attention the little Baltic country gets makes me happy, especially if the focus is on its food. The authentic cuisine of my peeps is not exactly easy to find, so when I heard about Lithuanian Brunch at The Avenue Restaurant Bar & Grill in Glendale, N.Y., I made the 2-hour excursion to Queens, with Dad, my brother, and great anticipation in tow. We were not disappointed.
The Avenue is a typical corner bar in a typical working-class neighborhood, but on the last Sunday of every month, between noon and 4, the tiny back room is crammed with patrons in search of the iconic comfort foods of our culture. It warmed my heart to hear a a few Lithuanian phrases spoken at a table of 20-somethings.
Kugelis (pronounced KOO-ghe-lee), one of our family favorites, is a mixture of grated potatoes, onions, eggs, and bacon, baked cake-style and served with sour cream. The texture of The Avenue’s version immediately betrays a food processor in its preparation. No Kugelis my grandmother made was ever this smooth, because she lovingly hand-grated every spud. But the lack of authenticity in mouth-feel is an acceptable compromise, because the Kugelis here is absolutely delicious. The serving is a generous square, rich with bacon renderings, further embelished with a crown of crumbled bacon, and garnished with field greens. It can be ordered by itself ($6) or with the traditional accoutrements of sauerkraut and sausage ($10). The sausage was smoked and more akin to Polish kielbasa. It wasn’t the fresh-pork-and-mustard-seed variety I grew up with and prefer, but it was tasty.
I’ve seen Koldunai in various shapes. At The Avenue, they are the Lithuanian version of tortellini: plump pasta rings filled with ground meat, crowned with a mixture of fried bacon and onions ($6). A heavenly new favorite.
Cepelinai, zeppelin-shaped potato dumplings filled with ground pork, are almost as big as their namesake and can be ordered one ($6) or two ($10) at a time. They, too, are served with a heap of—what else?—bacon. The flavors in this national dish of Lithuania are more subtle but nonetheless satisfying.
Lithuania is a beer-drinking country, and The Avenue offers bottles of Svyturys and Utenos (both $5). Lithuanian wine, brandy, and vodka are also on the menu ($6 each) to complete the experience and toast “Į sveikatą” (ee sveh-KAH-ta)—“To your health.”
Driving in Queens can be daunting. Parking is difficult and may require a few turns around the block. But anyone who wants to enjoy good Lithuanian comfort food in a convivial atmosphere should fill up the tank, fire up the GPS, and go.
The Avenue Bar and Grill is located at 7122 Myrtle Avenue, Glendale, N.Y. Phone: (347) 725-3853. The Lithuanian Brunch menu is offered on the last Sunday of every month; reservations are recommended.