Slavonian food is not something you see very often in the Capital District. Actually, I’ve never seen it at all before this summer, when My Dacha Slavonian & European Cafe opened on Lark Street in Albany. I’ll admit I had to look up where Slavonia even was (turns out it is a region in Croatia). The restaurant’s website refers to the food as “Slavic,” which appears to be a bit more broad, encompassing most Eastern European and Russian cuisine.
Either way, I was intrigued. But it can be hard to just walk into a place like this where a lot of the menu is completely unfamiliar, and hope that you order something you’ll like. This type of food adventuring is best done in a group, and thanks to Steve N. of I Like Food, I was able to join a group of nine for maximum sampling this week.
I have to note that the dining experience at My Dacha is pretty informal, and almost charmingly spotty. Quite a few things on the menu were not available, and some came out that didn’t exactly mach the menu description (e.g. chunks of ham instead of chicken in the olivie salad, unlisted pickles in the salad with sprats, and a loose pudding that was billed as creme brulee – see Daniel B.’s notes on that dish). You have to be a little flexible in your ordering and very patient, but all of the food was freshly prepared in the kitchen and well worth the wait.
Some of my favorites of the night were the cold salads. Expect lots of mayonnaise, garlic, root vegetables, and fish in these plates. The salad with sprats (a small, smokey fish that resembles a sardine) was a surprise hit, as well as beautiful to look at. Layers of potatoes, carrots, egg, pickles, and sprats in a mayonnaise based sauce were formed into a neat circle. There was a nice mix of textures ranging from the crunchy pickles to the softer bits of egg, and the flavors were compelling and interesting in every bite.
I also liked the olivie salad, which had a similar vegetable composition but with ham and a chunkier presentation, as well as a simple salad of shredded beets and garlic and a light three bean salad.
The entrees were more of a mixed bag, but mostly fell on the “good” side of the divide. A plate of grilled chicken was simple but well executed, and served with a generous side of potatoes, onions, and mushrooms. A small plate of stuffed cabbage was also good but not particularly memorable. I liked the beef stroganoff quite a bit, with a classic creamy texture and some very tender pieces of beef, but I wish it was served with some egg noodles or another vessel to sop up all of the sauce.
Skippable items include the pierogies, which were almost reminiscent of dumplings more than the Polish pierogi I was expecting. They were small and bland and appeared to be boiled (possibly steamed). I’d also stay away from the banosh, which I wanted to order simply because I had no idea what it was. Turns out it’s just separate mounds of corn grits (served more like polenta), feta cheese, and either chicken, bacon, liver, or mushrooms. We ordered the liver version and I only ate a couple of bites before giving up on that one.
You might also be surprised to see that My Dacha has a lengthy pizza list on its menu. It turns out that the chef has spent some time in Italy making pizza, and that experience really shines through in the end product. Most of the options had a mix of traditional toppings, except for the Shawarma pie (topped with tomato sauce, mozzarella, chicken shawarma, and “salad”). So of course this is the one we ordered.
I’ve got to say, the shawarma pizza was amazingly good. Tender, brightly spiced pieces of chicken shawarma along with lettuce and thick cut slabs of tomato were generously layered on the pizza, and topped with an oil based dressing. The chicken was great, and the unusual salad elements really worked, especially when the dressing mixed with the tomato sauce and the cheese. The crust was thin and chewy with some decent blackened char at the bottom.
It turns out that the menu at My Dacha is very diverse, and probably better described as Eastern European. Plus Russian. Plus pizza. But whatever you want to call it, this place is a real gem and an invaluable addition to Lark Street. There were many many things that I am eager to return and try, including a cold salad with herring and beets, the soups (including borscht), more pizzas, and a scattering of hot dishes like lasagna and stuffed peppers. The restaurant is open for lunch as well as dinner with the same menu, and the food is bargain priced.
Overall Rating: 8/10. The slight misses in some entrees were more than balanced by the uniqueness and home cooked quality of the food overall, not to mention the casual charm of the service. Don’t be intimidated by the unfamiliar dishes or the Cyrillic script on the storefront and menu – My Dacha is worth a visit.