Cinderella, the inner Richmond cafe and deli that has been turning out Russian comfort food, hearty breads and fluffy pastries for 58 years, has a completely new look and a pared down menu. The old fashioned, white curtained dining room has disappeared, replaced by a handsome wooden ordering counter and display case chock full of baked goods, refrigerated Russian pickles and salads. If you’re dressed for the Russian steppes, you can sit at sidewalk tables tucked between flower boxes and flimsy windscreens, under an awning, as many hardy Russians do. The less weather resistant sit indoors at a handful of small tables. The helpful staff deliver the dishes when they are ready. This big transformation happened two years ago.
I’m happy to report that the reconfigured, more efficient Cinderella is even better than the old one. All the old favorites–soups, dumplings, stuffed cabbage, coriander-scented dark bread and pickles–remain, while a lot of the extraneous items are gone. Who needs five choices of starch with a couple of cabbage rolls anyway?
On one anomalously sunny afternoon, I sat at a sidewalk table with a plastic container of my favorite Cinderella appetizer, marinated fish ($2.99), plucked right from the deli case. Breading and pan frying keeps the mild white flesh moist and velvety. Smothered in a thick, delicately sweet and sour mixture of long cooked vegetables with no shortage of oil, the filets are chilled until everything melds in that integrated, old world way. It’s just delicious.
My other fave, pelmeni ($7.95), Russian boiled dumplings, have thick, tender, hand made noodle wrappers filled with onion-scented ground beef. Gently cooked in chicken broth, they come in a crock with a side of thick sour cream–comfort food at its nurturing best.
Another kind of boiled dumpling called vareniki ($6.99), half- moon shaped and filled with mashed potato, are served on a plate and topped with crisply fried onions, sour cream on the side. The humble combination of ingredients speaks to the Russian soul, though the shape and texture of these dumplings remind me of China. Two monolithic neighbors amicably collaborate on the plate.
On my one trip to Russia, a putative “culinary tour” in 1989, right before the fall of the Soviet Socialist Republic when Muscovites still waited in long lines for a head of cabbage, the one bright spot in daily subsistence was soup, flavorful, hearty, vegetable rich Russian soup, always served with excellent whole grain bread. The six soups prepared at Cinderella all possess this vigor. They come piping hot in handled crocks which the Russians I sat next to picked up and drained. Ladled chilled into pint containers to take home, they only improve with reheating. I love them all.
Stuffed cabbage lovers will rejoice in Cinderella’s golubtsy ($8.99), two long, fork tender cabbage rolls filled with savory ground beef and rice, moistened with vegetable infused tomato sauce, and flanked with thick slices of Cinderella’s newish dill pickles.
The beauty of the new shop is its versatility. When the urge for Russian soul food hits, you can satisfy it immediately and quickly with the new counter service, or defer gratification until you get home. So much of Russian cooking is about preserving–pickling, smoking, long cooking–real to-go food, and at popular Cinderella, nothing hangs around for very long.
Cinderella Russian Bakery and Cafe, 426 Balboa Street (at Ninth Avenue), San Francisco
Contact: 415 751-9690; www.cinderellabakery.com
Hours: Tuesday through Friday 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Closed Monday
Price range: $1.75 to $11.99
Recommended dishes: pelmeni in broth, potato vareniki with fried onions, marinated fish, all soups, stuffed cabbage rolls
Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express
Reservations: not taken; food to go