Russia’s not that far from us thanks to Izba Russian Treats

´Violinist Victoria Jacono-Gilmovich and I had been emailing back and forth for weeks and weeks, talking about her new production, The Wild Swans at the Sydney Opera House.  When we’d finally settled on a suitable date and time, Victoria mentioned Izba in Newtown as a place to meet.  “It’s Russian”, she tells me in an email, “The owner is the loveliest girl!”. Izba is also home to an array of Russian treats and cakes which you can have with coffee.

Done, and done.  Cakes? You don’t have to tell me twice!!!

Why don’t I come down this end of King Street more often?

Victoria and I agree to meet on a Saturday evening. Hahaha, “evening”.  It was 8pm, and a desserty treat wasn’t going to go astray.  Izba is located on 579 King Street, way past the fork in the road when King splits off into Enmore Road.  It’s the end of King Street I rarely visit when I’m in Newtown, and when I look around at the various little eateries, cafes and restaurants in Izba’s vicinity, I think, “why don’t I come down this end more often?”.

I arrive on the dot of 8pm, and I’m surprised that there are still a few people having treats at that hour.  Victoria is inside speaking Russian to another blogger (about her upcoming performance) and Olga, Izba’s frontline woman and owner, is behind the counter serving customers – I catch snippets of the Russian language in her conversations with the patrons and I feel an immediate warmth and comfort.  I take in the bright decorations of the shop and the matryoshka dolls and sitting on the cake display cabinet, and before I know what’s happening, I’m seated at a table and Victoria and I are settling in for some food.

Russian dolls

Russian dolls

Izba’s a narrow shop inside, and tables spill out onto the footpath outside the doors.  It all makes for a homely, welcoming feeling – this is most likely heightened by the cool air and the chatter of very happy customers.  Later, Olga will tell me that the word Izba is in reference to the small log cabins found in the Russian countryside, and that her little cafe is a bit of a homage to the warmth and homeliness an izba represents.

Russian food is often made from scratch

Yep, Olga tells me that if you’re gluten intolerant or a vegetarian, finding something to eat in a Russian cafe might be a bit difficult, because so much of the food is made with meat and dairy.  Not that I’m complaining, because I’m neither gluten-free or vegetarian!  Russian food is hearty, because it has to be – the cooler climate in Russia means food has to be nourishing and filling.

Russian food, Olga says, is often made from scratch – like full on from scratch.  Victoria agrees, telling me about her Russian grandmother who would take great time and care to prepare food for parties.  So things like dough, jam, pastry and custard (yum, yum, yum and yum!) were often created from square one, like it would be “cheating” if anything was store-bought.  In a time where there is now a pretty big shift towards artisanal, handmade products, I find this really endearing and really necessary.  I’m also told that many Russian families will make some sort of variation of their cakes, because every Russian region has their own take on it, which makes it all the more exciting to experience.

And now … the food :)

 

Blini (Russian Pancake)

Blini (Russian Pancake)

 

So first off we had Blini, which in essence is like a Russian pancake.  They are thin and made from yeast, you can fry them in a pan or, when baked, they have a popping-like look to them, like bubbles of flavour are trying to escape out into the ether :P  At Izba, I had the blini filled with caramelised onion and beef variety, but they can also come with a filling of cheese and sultanas. It’s a pretty common dish in Russia, and it can be eaten with savoury or sweet sides.  Like I said earlier, a general rule of thumb is that a lot of Russian food don’t cater for the gluten-intolerant amongst us, but the blini here is an exception – Olga makes a gluten-free version.  Yay!

 

Honey Cake

Honey Cake

 

Next up, we had a bit of the Honey Cake. This is actually Olga’s specialty, so it was a real honour and treat to experience this.  It’s made with a biscuit dough (I know!!!) and is moistened with sour cream filling.  This was DELICIOUS and if have half a brain you will try this pronto!  The story behind the Honey Cake’s creation goes back to the time of Tsars and Emperors in Russia, so it’s lovely to think you’re eating, yes, food fit for royalty :)

 

Napoleon Cake

Napoleon Cake

The Napoleon Cake is probably one treat children of Russian heritage will know of.  It’s the cake you have for any kind of celebration or party, like a birthday or a special occasion.  Victoria remembers eating Napoleon Cake as a child, how it was prepared in advance and created from scratch to be shared on the day of the party.  This was delicious – and since Izba also do online orders it seems everyone can have their Napoleon Cake too!

 

Prague Cake

Prague Cake

 

No cafe is complete without something totally made of chocolate (three layers of chocolate dough!), and this is where Izba gives us the Prague Cake.  Created in the Soviet era and only served in lavish hotels to high ranking officials, it was the kind of cake everyday folk had to line up for to even get a taste of.  Nowadays it’s available to whoever wants it.  In Newtown, at least.

 

 

 

 

Izba Cake

Izba Cake

And if no cafe is complete without their own equivalent of a Prague Cake, then the Izba cafe would definitely not be complete without the Izba Cake!  Like I said before, an izba is a small little cabin-y house thing, so this cake is kind of shaped like a little wooden cottage.  Except it’s got sour cherries in the roof. Which is great for flavour, not so great for shelter.

 

 

 

 

 

Great place to check out in Newtown … and now Broadway!

So there you have it.  My “trip” to Russia was pretty good, and I came away with some interesting tidbits of information.  Izba is also opening in Broadway on the ground floor of the Broadway Shopping Centre, near the Aldi.  They opened on the 20th June and will be selling their cakes and treats from their little Broadway kiosk.  You can also still get them at their cafe in Newtown and online.

 

Thank you Victoria for introducing me to this wonderful place and to Olga for being so hospitable!

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