Lunch with Eyza at the ‘Ukie Nash’

UNH exterior4Gloria Chung The Ukrainian East Village Restaurant, 140 Second Avenue.

The Ukrainian East Village Restaurant at 140 Second Avenue between St. Marks Place and Ninth Street is quite possibly the least welcoming restaurant in the hyperbolically friendly Lower East Side. My office sits across the street, and I had been there a year before I made bold last week to open the outer doors under a canopy advertising “Ukrainian National Home,” which appears to be the name of the restaurant, though it is not; pass through an empty lobby into the interior of the building; round a corner, and open a second set of doors. It was lunch time, and the restaurant looked like the grill room of a public golf course in February — low ceiling, blonde wood paneling, too-bright lighting, oilcloth-covered tables with glass tops and, of course, scarcely any customers.

Unlike the Chinese-Mingrelian tapioca bars and whatnot which dot the Lower East Side, the Ukrainian East Village Restaurant does not need to impress. It has always been there, and probably always will be. My lunchtime companion, Eyza Kurowyckyj — think of “quart of whiskey,” she says helpfully — was born on Sixth Street between First and Second Avenues in 1957, long before the first cut-rate Bengali place had arrived. Eyza says that she never knew a time when Ukie Nash, as she and the entire neighborhood called it after the name on the canopy, didn’t sit there at the end of its blank hallway, and when her friends and family members didn’t go to the giant catering hall upstairs for weddings and galas and balls. But Eyza hadn’t eaten there recently — possibly for fear that the cholesterol would kill her.

Eyza did the ordering — sauerkraut pierogis, potato pancakes, blueberry blintzes, stuffed cabbage and, to drink, compote, a fruit juice with rhubarb and strawberry and who knows what else. “Is the cabbage stuffed with rice or meat?” Eyza asked our waitress. “Rice and meat,” replied this rather forbidding middle-aged figure.

Eyza is Ukrainian-American royalty, at least by marriage. Kurowycky Meat Products, on the east side of First Avenue between Seventh Street and St. Marks Place, opened in 1955 and for more than half a century served as the hub of the community. (The family, in a bow to non-Ukrainian-American sensibilities, left off the “j” at the end of their name when they christened the market.) Martha Stewart’s mother used to go; Martha put them on the show three times. But it wasn’t enough. The Ukrainians moved to New Jersey, women started working and stopped buying a fresh chicken every day, and persnickety regulators prohibited the hanging of fresh, aromatic kielbasi. (“There’s all the difference in the world between a kielbasa fresh from the oven and one that’s chilled in a refrigerator compartment.”) In 2007, Eyza’s husband, Jaroslaw, known as Jerry, grandson of the founder, closed the place up. The family still owns the “Homemade Pierogi and Deli Co.” down the block; the gentle, elderly, non-English-speaking couple who staff the place are the Kurowyckyj’s Polish relatives.

UNH interior9Gloria Chung The interior of the Ukrainian East Village Restaurant: “low ceiling, blonde wood paneling, too-bright lighting, oilcloth-covered tables with glass tops and, of course, scarcely any customers.”

The sauerkraut pierogis came, with a little puddle of fried onions, a dense reduction, in their midst, and a paper cup of sour cream on the side. Eyza, a connoisseur of pierogis, was impressed, though in her view nothing rivals the pierogis sold by the Ukrainian ladies at the St. George Church on Friday and Saturday afternoons. This may have something to do with the fact that Eyza and Jerry and practically everyone else they knew went to the church school as kids.

Our waitress returned with everything else. I wrote down one word in my notebook: “mountains.” The stuffed cabbage was two gravy-covered hillocks with a great mound of mashed potato beside them. The potato pancakes, which Eyza and I both found a bit pasty, looked like a pair of fried flounders. The blintzes, two delicately folded crepes, were exquisite.

“This is the food my mother used to make,” Eyza said. She had just sent a care package of four chleb babuni, or grandmother’s bread, to her mother in Florida, who complained that you couldn’t find a decent loaf of bread in the whole state.

“And you?”

Eyza, whose blonde pixie haircut gives her an adorably girlish look, recoiled. She had danced for three years with the New York City Ballet, and she still kept her figure. “At home,” she said, “it’s mostly salads and grains.”

Eyza is a foodie too. She told me about the new pizzeria on the old Kurowyckyj block, and I told her about the wursthaus a few storefronts down. Eyza works in the Care Plus CVS drugstore, which occupies the storefront space where the Ukie Nash would be if it were a normal restaurant. She waxed nostalgic about the golden days when everyone lived a few blocks from everyone else and the annual Ukrainian debutante ball was held at the Hotel Pierre. She and Jerry are among the last of the old crowd hanging on. I asked for the check; otherwise it might never have arrived. (It came to $35.) I left Eyza in front of the drugstore; she said she was going upstairs to take a nap.

The Ukrainian East Village Restaurant, 140 Second Avenue (between St. Marks Place and Ninth Street), 212-614-3283.