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photo: Darrol Hofmeister
photo: Darrol Hofmeister

Damn Good Perogies

Our critic stopped eating one dumpling short of a seizure

by Aidan Morgan

GS EUROPEAN DELI CAFE
1640 ALBERT ST.
(306) 525-0505

Raise your hand if you remember the first time you ate a perogy.

I'm going to exempt myself from raising my hand (typing goes pretty slowly with only one hand available) but I do remember my first perogy. It was the summer of 1988, at a food cart in front of the Halifax Public Library. Perogies were practically unknown in Nova Scotia at the time, and the vendor was fighting a losing battle in her mission to interest Maritimers in potato-filled dumplings.

I bought a small paper plate of perogies with a spoonful of sour cream and pretended to love them, even though they were hot, watery and mysteriously flavourless. I was 17 years old, the perogy vendor was pretty and I thought that feigning interest in dumplings would make me more attractive. It turned out that, while she had no particular interest in me, she was fascinated by perogies, and seemed to have taken the job of perogy proselytizer as a labour of love.

Over the course of the summer she gave me a rundown on the history of perogies and why she believed they were going to be the Next Big Thing in the Maritimes. She explained that they were popular in Western Canada, whose chief exports I understood to be wheat, petroleum, hash and Bachman-Turner Overdrive.

As she talked I nodded and burned my tongue repeatedly, wondering when and how I could get her away from her cart. I had no idea at the time that I'd be living in Regina within the year, where perogies were as common and emblematic as donairs. They were practical and forgettable: the ultimate filler at the wedding buffet, a late-night burst of energy for all-night study sessions and a frozen staple for broke college students.

But a few weeks ago I walked into the GS European deli and had a plate of boiled potato and bacon perogies that finally lived up to that girl's hype. They were plain but not bland, filling but not heavy and appropriately drenched in butter. They were the perogies that a food vendor in Halifax dreamed of 22 years ago.

You can put your hand down now, by the way. People are probably getting concerned.

GS European Deli and Café is the newest addition to the city's slate of ethnic food outlets, but this is the first I know of that specializes in traditional Russian foods. The café doubles as a specialized grocery store as well, with Russian desserts and delicacies for the adventurous. Decor is probably the café's weakest point, with efficient but uninspired slat walls holding decorative plates and a big flat-screen TV perched in the corner. The overall effect is like sitting in a back room that's been hastily tidied for a karaoke party.

But you won't care about the decor once the food arrives. We started off sharing a plate of syrniki ($1.29 each), sweet cheese fritters with yogurt dressing. They had a subtle but sweet taste and a pleasing cornmeal texture. We moved on to the soup: a bowl of solyanka ($3.49) for me and borscht ($3.49) for my friend. It seemed like a bad idea to eat at a Russian café and neglect the borscht.

Solyanka is a surprising soup, full of chopped-up bits of sausage, olives, capers and lemon and seasoned with paprika and peppercorns. It's probably the saltiest and spiciest dish on the menu, so I recommend it if you feel like a dish with lots of flavour. The borscht was a touch bland, but a few shakes of salt and a spoonful of sour cream brought out the flavour.

At this point we were already feeling a bit full but I was determined to try dishes from every section of the menu, and I was fully prepared to stagger out the doors and collapse in a food-induced coma on the street. Because the column demands it. So I ordered the "Bev Stroganov" ($5.90), which was extremely different from the beef stroganoffs I've had over the years. I'm used to beef strips swimming in liquid, but this dish was relatively dry with beef, sliced carrots and mushrooms on a bed of buckwheat. The carrots and mushrooms had so much more flavour than the beef that I can readily imagine a successful vegetarian stroganoff.

My friend had the cabbage rolls, or golupsti, which came with borscht ($9.45). And we split a potato-and-bacon filled pancake ($2.58).

At this point we took a break and simply stared across the table at each other, so stuffed full of food that we may have been weeping. But we were not finished.

We ordered the bacon-and-potato perogies - also spelled pierogi, pyrogy, pyrohy and pyrogi - ($4.79) and I tried the veal pelmeni ($4.50/small portion), a meat-filled dumpling that, like the borscht, benefits from a bit of salt. It's a rule of thumb that the dishes at the GS European Deli are a bit undersalted by North American standards, but that's what the salt shakers at the table are for.

To finish up, we tried a slice of Napoleon cake ($3.98) and honey cake ($3.98). Be warned: they serve gigantic slices of cake. And you will eat the entire thing, no matter what you may tell yourself. I think the owner was about to call an ambulance for us by the end of the meal.

The GS European Deli could stand better decor and parking, but it offers excellent food at very reasonable prices and that's the important thing. The deli also boasts a fantastic website at www.gldeli.com. Confusingly, the business calls itself both the GL and GS Deli, but I won't hold it against them. Business hours are 11:00 a.m.-7:00 p.m. Monday to Friday and 11:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. Saturday.