roxolana Photo by: Evans Vestal Ward

Flattering flavors

Roxolana brings fine Ukrainian cuisine to Old Pasadena

By Dan O'Heron 08/11/2011

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Because it’s  likely the only Ukrainian restaurant in Southern California — and because of the dishes I’ve sampled
and reports from reliable foodies — Old Pasadena diners should be flattered by Roxolana’s new flavors.

A hint that I’d be in for pleasure came from an adjacent table, where I heard Fred Fadaiz, owner of Pasadena’s popular Gerlach’s Grill, exclaim to the waiter: “This red-wine mousse is the best dessert that I’ve ever tasted.” Had I eavesdropped earlier, I might have heard Faidez extol his broiled leg of lamb shashlik, which I watched him devour down to the porcelain.

With a predominately Ukrainian menu, including overlays of international refinements, Roxolana is owned and operated by Igor Zagorodnyy and his son-in-law, Alex Balinsky. The father, who serves as executive chef, owned a chain of restaurants in the Ukraine. As a country with some of the richest farmland in the world, it figures there’d be many salads on the menu. One of them, however, was an “American Caesar.” For fun, I suggested that it be printed as “C-Zar,” but Balinsky looked at me with dismay, or was it distaste?

You’ll want to get in with Balinsky and General Manager Greg Napier. With positions from chef to management to consultant, Napier’s resume includes jobs at Chicago’s celebrated Pump House (ask him about Sinatra and Leno) and Rive Gauche French bistro in Sherman Oaks.

Napier loves to come out of the kitchen to swap stories, make cocktail party chitchat or explain in excruciating detail how Roxolana comes up with great new delicious flavors. He sold me on trying Chef Igor’s baby back ribs — “When your appetite is up for them; the full rack spills over a giant platter,” Napier said.

For details on the name, Roxolana, ask Balinsky. I understand that the name translates into “Ukrainian girl,” honoring a 16th-century child who was kidnapped by Crimean Tatars and sold into slavery to the Ottoman sultan. Folklore tells us the sultan eventually succumbed to her charms — gave up his harem — and they lived happily ever after, pillaging and besieging their neighbors.

The composer Haydn is supposed to have dedicated a symphony to her memory.

From present time to yore, with accredited names like those above endorsing the place, it was a reasonable guess that special things would turn up at my table. The first were crepe-wrapped strands of cured gravlax salmon, crowned with pebbles of red caviar. (These tasted much better than brioche/salmon envelopes topped with sturgeon mousse that a great cook once served me.) With eight or 10 rounds on the platter, it makes for a super shareable.

The next biggie was a classic hot borscht soup. Made with slivers of beets and other veggies in a meaty stock, it was deftly seasoned with garlic, vinegar, fresh dill and fine herbs. So tasty, it was one of those foods that I could just go on and on eating even if I’m not hungry.

Most dinner prices are between $14 and $25. Before I could order the famous chicken Kiev — wearing a perishable tie, I didn’t fear being spurted with herbed butter — a phone call took me away. But I didn’t want to go. With white-linen topped tables, nattily folded maroon napkins, heavy Russian silverware and a becoming wine bar, there was romance in the air. After they get a full liquor license, I expect to see someone’s diamond ring at the bottom of a vodka glass — chilled and flavored.

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