East Village stalwart Veselka has been around so long, it’s impossible for most of us to remember a time when it was not. Beginning in 1954, the original restaurant on Second Avenue operated like a club for Ukrainians until it opened its doors to the artists and musicians of the East Village in the ’70s. Now it’s a necessary stop for many a kid making the pilgrimage down St. Marks Place, but if you’re a New Yorker who’s always seeking out the latest and greatest on the dining scene, chances are the original Ukrainian restaurant falls by the wayside.
Perhaps to prove that the restaurant is more than just a piece of history, Veselka’s owners just opened an additional branch in a shiny new space on East 1st Street off the Bowery. Airy and open, with plain wooden tables, dishtowel napkins, sleek navy chairs and wrought iron chandeliers, it brings the homey atmosphere of the old Veselka into the current day.
This is stick-to-your-guts food that could keep even the harshest winter at bay, but like the interior design, it’s a lighter and brighter variation on the original. (Other signs they’re keeping up with the times? Veselka even has a Twitter account.) But they don’t fix what ain’t broken: potato and cheese pierogi ($10) with sour cream, homemade applesauce and caramelized onions are wonderfully, comfortingly familiar – just like the ones served up at 3am to hungry bar hoppers on Second Avenue.
But other Eastern European standbys are admirably complex, like the Veselka Bowery’s borscht ($7), flavored as much by flakes of meaty brisket, stewed cabbage and tangy sour cream as by the beets.
This would be an appropriate place to bring a starving man. Three massive Ukrainian meatballs sit atop a huge pile of egg noodles sauced with mushroom gravy. The kitchen here relies more on old school technique than fancy new ingredients to impress: The juicy meatballs taste like toast. Sometimes all that’s needed is toasted breadcrumbs and a silky but earthy mushroom sauce to take traditional food to the next level.
Despite its equally large size, an entree of cabbage stuffed with brisket and pork, set atop creamy Ukrainian polenta (mamaliga), has the sunny, healthy flavor of the tomato sauce from the braise and a nice vegetal crunch. Another update: the brisket and pork are slow roasted and flaked for the filling, giving this Eastern European classic a nice artisanal taste.
A long, prettily-lit bar extends down the front of the restaurant and is stocked with a mind-boggling 70+ varieties of vodka to go with that borscht. Try one of the themed flights of vodka – Ukrainian, Russian, or Polish (four vodkas each for $20-$22) or opt for a bracing house cocktail like the Ruby Red Square (grapefruit and peppercorn infused vodka, grapefruit juice and bitters, $11) or the breezy Stubborn ZU (Zübrowka Vodka, homemade ginger syrup, fresh lime juice and mint, $11). For brunch, there’s a Bloody Mary made with kielbasa-infused vodka.
Veselka Bowery also has a takeout business – coffee and breakfast sandwiches, plus hot sandwiches like this huge and tasty open-faced reuben ($14). And if you want to try many of their top hits at once, there’s a multi-course Ukrainian Christmas dinner on Friday, January 6th.
The only worrisome thing about the new Veselka is its location on East 1st Street between the Bowery and 2nd Avenue, on the ground floor of a new apartment complex. Unlike the Second Avenue location, Veselka Bowery doesn’t get nearly as much foot traffic, so diners have to seek it out. When only a few tables are occupied, it can feel a little empty. The flip side of this is a spacious, sophisticated restaurant that’s good for good for groups and doesn’t require shouting or elbowing your way to your table. But the prices are still low, so it feels like a college-age meal with an adult sensibility.
Like a lot of the rockers in the neighborhood, Veselka has grown up.
9 East 1st Street, between Bowery and 2nd Avenue
New York, NY
Menus available online.