A provocative statement opens the menu at Baltic in Blue Ash: "Eating is a necessity; knowing how to eat is an art." Not being a literalist, I understood the message clearly. In fact, I once considered writing a book titled How to Eat about the dining experience that is beyond the food, the experience that memory, family and love bring to the table. I hope that is what they mean at Baltic, because they seem to have done it.
The restaurant is situated in a small strip mall off the Square in Blue Ash. Walking in, the first thought I had was that it is a pretty room: The walls are pale blue, accented with white; the tables are simple and have live flowers and linen and the prettiest salt-and-pepper shakers I've seen in a restaurant. The whole mood is soothing. We were seated and shown the rather extensive menu. As I looked around I noticed a few couples and a large family in the restaurant with us; everyone seemed happy and comfortable.
Here's why: This is comfort food, Russian -- or perhaps more accurately, Eastern European -- style. Many former Soviet states are represented. I was afraid I wouldn't know some of the dishes, but each is very clearly and lovingly described on the menu.
Hot and cold appetizers are made to share: an assorted pickled vegetable platter, a meat platter and the Russian Roulette ($10.95), which we had, with smoked salmon, salmon caviar in pastry cups, shrimp cocktail and smoked sea bass. (The latter replaced sardines, which our server confessed that Americans don't like to eat whole -- so they've been replaced.) I like sardines, but the bass was wonderful, creamy and sweetly smoky.
The shrimps were a bit anemic, but the salmon and roe were very good with the simple rye bread.
Our next course was soup. Served in lovely, deep bowls, each was a meal in itself. My mother likes beets, so she ordered the Borscht ($3.95). I wonder sometimes about my naiveté. I always thought borscht was a puréed beet soup ... wrong. It's actually a Ukrainian vegetable soup with beets and onions and spices, topped with sour cream. I tasted it and thought about the times I've passed on it. I doubt I'll do so again.
I had the Harcho ($6.25), a lamb and vegetable soup with Georgian spices. A spicy broth soup with onions and garlic and spices which, I hate to admit, I didn't recognize, but which gave the soup an almost Mexican flavor. It had a big chunk of lamb that was tender and broke easily with my spoon. I can imagine how good it would be on winter night, in a simple kitchen with friends and family.
These are the emotions this restaurant conjures up, and our main course amplified the feeling. We ordered the Pelmini with Mushrooms ($7.95) and the Chicken Tabaka ($12.95). Both dishes seemed foreign and familiar at the same time. Pelmini are little dumplings (like raviolis or pot stickers) filled with beef and onion, and stewed in a mushroom broth with onions. Very soothing and satisfying, but again the spices are unfamiliar and exotic, to me at least.
Chicken Tabaka is a spiced Cornish Hen cooked in a press, smashed thin and served bone-in. What a great idea this is. The press cooks both sides crisp and golden and evens out the meat so it is all done to perfection. Served with a little mashed potatoes and green beans the feeling is definitely comfort.
For dessert we had a Raspberry Napoleon, made in-house. Crispy and tender it was a sweet end to a delicious meal. Like with movies, if a meal makes you think about it later, it was probably good. And Baltic made me think.
As we left, I noticed an extended family, clearly from Eastern Europe, passing platters of meat and pickled vegetables. Laughing and animated, they seemed almost Rockwellian. I thought to myself that family and food are a common connection for people regardless of where they are on the globe. I can't imagine how touched I would have been if Baltic had a liquor license, and I'd had a few vodkas with dinner. Owners Veronika Astapenko and Angelica Stepanov seemed to have invited us into their family. For that, I thank them. ©
Go: 4924 Hunt Road, Blue Ash
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-midnight Friday, 5 p.m.-midnight Saturday, 5-10 p.m. Sunday
Payment: Major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Extensive selection of vegetarian dishes
Accessibility: Handicap accessible with handicap parking