A full Russian feast at Imperial from Vitaly Paley
Image: Vitaly Paley
A full Russian feast at Imperial from Vitaly Paley

What better than some plump dumplings, ethereal blini pancakes,  and endless shots of vodka to connect us to the headlines rocketing from half-a-world away?

As alliances and borders shift overseas, the joys of Russian food, snuffed out years ago by Soviet standardization, are finding an unexpected new home in Portland, Oregon. Kachka’s cache of zakuski (drinking foods) and homey one-plate meals have been the talk of spring, and, of course, a food cart from Moscow natives is representing, courtesy of Traditional Russian Cuisine at Cartlandia on SE 82nd Ave.  

But the most intriguing development is DaNet, a new monthly pop-up launching June 12 from chef Vitaly Paley (Paley’s Place, Imperial), the guy who pinned an Iron Chef on television with radish savvy and brought home James Beard Northwest gold before Portland was cool.

DaNet’s communal, five-course feasts will plumb forgotten foods from Paley’s youth in Belarus, blini to piroshky, while tapping soups, dumplings, fish, meats, and desserts from Georgia, Armenia, Uzbekistan, and other diverse food cultures from former Soviet republics. You might find twisted domes of khinkali (Georgian mountain dumplings) or spicy Uzbek rice and lamb. Through it all, Imperial bartender Tony Guardian, who moonlights as DJ Expensive Taste, will spin Slavic psych, hip-hop, and old world romance music. 

The staging ground for this experiment is the Portland Penny Diner on Southwest Broadway, Paley’s small, counter-service café next door to his Imperial inside the Hotel Lucia. Portland Penny Diner’s interior will be transformed with a little help from Paley’s mom, who recently shipped a box of aprons, Soviet-era posters, table runners, and tchotchkes saved from the motherland.

“People are in for a treat,” says Paley. “You’ll will feel as if you’ve walked into a Russian time warp and my grandma's home all at once.” 

Paley's hand-cured steelhead caviar
Image: Vitaly Paley
Paley's hand-cured steelhead caviar

“DaNet” is a contrasting Russian word that means “yes and no.”  For Paley, no word better signifies his thought process around exploring his Russian roots. He’s toyed with ideas for 10 years, and once considered opening a Russian food hideaway above Paley’s Place. This spring, he successfully tested the waters with a vodka, blini and caviar pop-up that unleashed two kinds of revelatory blini (traditional and potato) topped with hand-cured steelhead caviar, sour cream and a pair of fresh jams for mixing and matching. I demolished four on the spot. You can try it yourself as the first course at DaNet.

So far, Paley has committed to three summer dinners. He’s putting his heart on the line, next to his considered palate. “Here we go,” he emailed me recently. “I’m finally going to do it. It’s very emotional for me. I hope it flies.”

Upcoming DaNet dinners: June 12, July 10and August 14; $65 for five courses; drinks and gratuity not included. Portland Penny Diner, 410 SW Broadway Reservations: imperialpdx.com or 503-228-7222.

Every Wednesday: Restaurant tips, cheap eats, recipes, and breaking food and drink news from all over the city. (See an example!)