In a world of multiplying Russian questions and conspiracies, the Russophile American can still, for the time being, rely on blini to remain uncontroversial. For the uninitiated, blini are the Russian equivalent of crêpes, thin pancakes folded around fillings such as sweet cheese, ground meat, or salmon roe. Unlike their French cousins, blini are made with yeasted dough, so they are airier and lighter, with a hint of sourness that complements sweet fillings and adds complexity to savory ones. The blin is so ubiquitous in Russia that the word is also used as a mild expletive: a polite Russian might mutter it after stubbing her toe, in place of the curse word blyad. In any Russian café, or even a utilitarian, Soviet-style stolovaya, one can find an array of blini and their traditional accompaniments: sour cream for savory blini, sticky preserves made of strawberries or cherries for sweet ones. In Gogol’s “Dead Souls,” the greedy and amoral Chichikov revealed his inner nature when he dipped blini in melted butter, “folding three together,” and “consigned the lot to his mouth.”
New York City has the largest number of Russian speakers of any U.S. metropolis, but two-thirds of them reside in Brooklyn, and outposts of Russian culture in Manhattan tend to be fairly staid compared to the pastry-slinging seaside bakeries and markets of Brighton Beach. The Russian Tea Room, on Fifty-seventh Street, perhaps the most famous example, was founded, in 1927, by members of the Russian Imperial Ballet; its menu offers three-hundred-dollar ounces of caviar and Russian dumplings filled with foie gras. These days, though, there’s a new opportunity for Russian and English speakers alike to feast on blini without much formality or a long ride down Brooklyn’s spine. One of Russia’s largest fast-food chains, Teremok, has expanded its reach to Manhattan, and has set about dispensing fast-casual Russian cuisine to the masses of tourists and commuters who pass through the crowded streets of midtown.
Teremok, a low-key purveyor of Russian staples, is almost comically ubiquitous in Moscow; a map of its locations shows a city Dalmatian-spotted with kiosks and restaurants, all boasting the company’s signature red nesting-doll logo. St. Petersburg hosts a healthy complement as well, along with a few in lesser-known burgs such as Surgut, Tyumen, and Krasnodar. The two New York branches—in Union Square and Chelsea—are the chain’s first forays outside Russia, and are the result of a process years in the making. Why America? In an interview with the Russian magazine Forum Daily, the chain’s founder, Mikhail Goncharov, had a simple answer: “It’s the motherland of fast food.”
Goncharov’s career, as described to journalists over the years, is a fast-food rags-to-riches story with a distinctly Russian flavor. His scrappy, capitalist instincts were forged in the crisis years of the nineteen-nineties, when Russia’s society and economy lurched and stumbled following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Raised in Almaty, now the capital of Kazakhstan, Goncharov got his first taste for entrepreneurship as a mathematics student at Moscow State University, where he became one of many students who washed windows for pocket change. Inspired, he struck out on his own, later telling the Russian magazine Food Service, “I’d be walking down the street and I’d see, say, the Ministry of Railways and Communications, with black, dirty windows . . . and I’d go inside and ask, ‘Don’t you need someone to wash the windows?’ ” He wanted most of all to afford expensive, imported goods—luxuries in the former Soviet Union. At the time, he said, Snickers bars were the “symbols of a better life” for university students.
His early ventures into the wilderness of post-Soviet capitalism, which focussed on selling tape recorders, came to ruin in the financial crisis of 1998, when the ruble collapsed and the Russian state defaulted on its debts. With bank loans and the remains of his capital, he turned to a quintessentially Russian product: the blin. Goncharov saw an opportunity in this beloved, portable, and quick-to-prepare food. Partnering with his mother, Tatiana Vasilievna, he launched a chain of Russian-food restaurants so authentic that the original blini recipe was based on a pre-revolutionary cookbook, “A Gift to Young Housewives,” by Elena Molokhovets, whose fifteen hundred recipes made her Russia’s Fannie Farmer. The chain has expanded steadily since the nineteen-nineties, not without requisite brushes with Russia’s culture of bribery. In an interview with Snob magazine, Goncharov described joining a line of entrepreneurs bidding for kiosk tenders outside a county prefecture office: a parked Jeep stood outside the building with a suitcase in the trunk, waiting to accept bribes from those who had clinched their contracts. “ ‘So you received two locations? Four hundred thousand,’ ” Goncharov said, quoting a bribe taker. “So they put the money in the suitcase.” Goncharov has proved adept at navigating Russia’s contemporary system as well: co-owners of the chain include the brothers of senators and oligarchs. Of his move to New York, he told Snob, “The bureaucracy there is not any different from ours; it’s sufficiently powerful.”
For Russians, Teremok is quintessential fast food: a puff of aromatic steam from a pocket of dough on a wintry St. Petersburg day, a bowl of homey buckwheat and scrambled eggs during an office lunch break. The expansive menu includes many familiar Russian comfort foods, from blini and curd-cheese cakes to the tiny meat-filled dumplings known as pelmeni. As one Russophile friend told me, “I always felt unhealthy after eating there, in the best way.” In the U.S., where blini and borscht are still exotic to many diners, Teremok has retooled its pitch, flipping its Russian slogan—“Home-cooking restaurants”—to the oddly generic “Where flavor meets healthy.” Buckwheat groats—known in Russia, where they are omnipresent, as grechnevaya kasha—have been repackaged as a “superfood”; the familiar Russian beet is touted for its vitamins. The Union Square branch is sleek, clean, and bereft of the bright colors and cheeky slogans that adorn the Moscow restaurants.
Nonetheless, the core of Teremok’s appeal—the food—has survived the Atlantic crossing. The Red Star blin offers a satisfying burst of salty salmon roe, draped in hot, lacy pastry and delivered in minutes. The ukha, smoked-salmon chowder, was piping hot and creamy, although I left my heart in a bowl of ukha in a small town on the Danube delta. A sweet blin with creamed honey and pine nuts brought with it echoes of the pine forests of Siberia, washed down with bitter black border-hopping espresso. The blini are too large to cram in one’s mouth three at a time like Chichikov, but one imagines Gogol’s penny-pinching hero would have balked at the prices anyhow—eight to ten dollars apiece. (Russian headlines heralding Teremok’s international move had goggled at New York prices; in Moscow, a blin with sour cream will set you back just two dollars.)
The Union Square branch opened in October, sometime between the first trickle of the D.N.C.’s hacked e-mails and the resignation of Michael Flynn over improper contacts with the Russian Ambassador. When I asked a cashier, recently, if Russia’s tumultuous role in U.S. politics ever came up with customers, she shook her head and told me that she didn’t know what I was talking about. A co-worker put a reassuring hand on her shoulder: “It’s Putin’s dirty money,” he explained. The clientele was sparse in the late afternoon. For an answer, there was only the sound of my blin cooking on the griddle, and the rise and fall of spoons.