Where Y'Eat: Coming In The From The Cold At Kukhnya

Feb 13, 2014

Sochi may be in the spotlight, but our New Orleans food writer has his mind on Siberia — a music club with an edgy look but a surprisingly home-spun kitchen featuring Slavic soul food.

We all like to complain about the weather — or at least it seems we’re prone to do so. But truly, in New Orleans, after the summers we suffer through, it seems profoundly unfair to have to let our faucet drips, see our gardens die, and bundle ourselves up under soaring ceilings in homes designed for the subtropics. In New Orleans, freezing weather is just not cool.

Still, to another way of looking at it, the cold can be the cue to indulge in things not part of the New Orleans norm. On the fashion front, you see this happen each fall. At the first whiff of a cool autumn day, people who have been sweating pretty much nonstop since April will immediately break out the layers.

It’s similar with food, and as some prolonged chilly spells have stretched on here, I’ve been venturing to one particular spot that serves food uniquely attuned to winter’s homey, cozy, comforting cravings — even if the setting where it’s found seems to run counter to those notions.

Kukhnya is the Russian word for kitchen, and it’s also the name of a tavern kitchen inside the bar and music club Siberia on St. Claude Avenue. Both the menu and the music calendar specialize in niches not well represented in this town.

Siberia hosts all kinds of acts, from singer-songwriters to an always-entertaining gig on Monday nights called “Bits and Jiggles,” a combination of stand-up comedy and burlesque. But Siberia is best known as a rare local showcase for heavy metal, punk rock and other types of bands you won’t find on your Jazz Fest cube schedule.  

Perhaps even more rare in New Orleans is a kitchen for “Slavic soul food.” That’s what Kukhnya is all about, with a menu built around buttered egg noodles, potato-filled pierogi and borscht soup the color of claret bobbing with lumps of sour cream. There are plenty of personal touches too, like the chef’s “polboys,” a Slavic refashioning of the po-boy with kielbasa, asparagus and Russian dressing among the possible fillings.

You order at a walk-up window and eat from paper plates. But New Orleans people seeking out offbeat and unusual food are pretty used to that sort of thing by now. What’s more important to me is that Kukhnya cuts no corners where it counts. Peer into the kitchen and you’ll see crêpe irons for made-to-order blini, ready to be filled with goat cheese and spiced apples, and perhaps a roasting pan of beets ready for the oven, or trays of fat, stuffed cabbage rolls, as if Kukhnya were the kitchen of some Ukrainian granny expecting family visitors.

Of course, this is not grandmother’s house, but a St. Claude Avenue music club, and Siberia does look a little edgy. But the bartenders are friendly, the crowd is colorful and, if you show up before the bands start, you should find a perch to work through your beef Stroganoff or a veggie burger spun from beets and lentils.

Then again, with fresh memories of our palm trees stuck with frost and our subtropical port city essentially iced in, maybe Kukhnya’s kitchen full of home-style Slavic flavors and a music calendar full of metal bands aren’t such strange bedfellows after all.

Kukhnya (at Siberia)

2227 St. Claude Ave., New Orleans, 504-265-8855