By Frank Sabatini Jr.
A mere mention of Russia these days is enough to demolish the frivolity of social gatherings.
Moscow meddled in our elections, formed oily ties to high-ranking members of our government, and earlier this decade, imposed a 100-year ban on Pride parades. None of it makes you want to book a tour to The Kremlin.
Yet through the smoky darkness of super powers misbehaving, there’s levity to be found at Pomegranate Russian-Georgian Restaurant, where gut-warming cuisine and lighthearted menu descriptions help you forget (if only for a night) the tyrannical maneuvers of Vladdy the Puppet Master and the curious respect he draws from our very own Yam-mander in Chief. (Sorry Trumpsters, I can no longer resist.)
Pomegranate demonstrates that food transcends world politics when you consider for example a carrot-garlic-walnut salad, which the menu states will “overwhelm the defenses of all your senses.” If there’s a way of reaching that liberating mindset after delving into your daily news feeds, this mound of uniquely flavored shredded carrots is surely one of them.
“Serious love” is listed as an ingredient in another salad of fresh cabbage, berries and unidentifiable herbs that unanimously wowed our group of six. In addition, the intriguingly spicy lobio bean salad with walnuts “awakens the appetite” while the Ikra Badrijannaya medley of eggplant, onions and garlic dressed in fruity olive oil is described as “a vegetarian’s dream while in hell.”
We ordered all of the above in the salad sampler, priced at $17. It included two loaves of hot, crusty bread with butter, which paired without fail to every item on the platter.
Some of us chose appetizers as our entrees. They included a few bowls of house-made vereniki dumplings stuffed generously with potato and cheese. Think Polish pierogis, sans the butter sauce and with onions that are more intensely caramelized. A substantial plop of requisite sour cream in the middle fueled their mighty calorie count.
My favorite starter was a pair of chebureki, a Crimean specialty of jumbo fried turnovers filled with ground beef, onions, cilantro and garlic. They’re served with garlicky yogurt-dill dipping sauce to compensate for the slight lack of moisture. Unable to finish them, I toted the leftovers home for lunch the next day, at which point the underlying essence of fresh black pepper in the meat had fully developed.
One of our tablemates ordered Russia’s claim to fame — beef stroganoff. I opted for it when visiting here several years ago and trusted it would be as lush and velvety as I remembered. Indeed, the beef strips and sautéed mushrooms lovingly united within a slick mixture of jus and sour cream while the buttered noodles sat naked at one end of the plate, allowing you to slide some or all of them into the stew.
Khinkali are off-menu Georgian dumplings available only on Thursdays and Sundays. Compared to the vereniki, they’re more elaborately crimped with their curly sides and knobby peaks.
Served five to a plate, I intercepted a sample from a member of our party and found the beef-pork filling to be mouthwatering as the flavors of caraway, parsley and cilantro emerged. Because their dough casings are thicker than most dumplings, they fill you up faster than it takes to cop a buzz from a few shots of Pomegranate’s low-alcohol vodka, which is available in the absence of a full liquor license.
A charcoal grill on the front patio is used for cooking shashlik, which translates to your choice of skewered pork loin, chicken or lamb. In my past visit, I ordered the pork and received four large, succulent pieces on the skewer. They were squirted with pomegranate sauce, which tasted both sweet and tart. My hopes for a repeat of the dish were dashed when learning the grill wasn’t in operation on this particular evening.
We passed on dessert, which includes “toad sweat ice cream” that the menu warns is “not for the faint of heart.” It’s basically vanilla ice cream topped with pomegranate-caramel sauce as well as habanero-spiked chocolate sauce. I had it before and can attest to its dramatic, stinging bite.
Pomegranate’s interior design evades the modern, industrial templates of many other restaurants in town. Soft lamp lighting pervades throughout two large dining rooms, each featuring warm fabrics, ceiling banners and quirky artwork.
Adding to the décor are copious scribblings by customers on nearly every square inch of wall space. They impart a friendly, bridge-building vibe free of politics and full of compliments about the Russian staff and hearty food.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.