Pomegranate Russian-Georgian Restaurant
2312 El Cajon Blvd. (North Park)
Prices: Appetizers, soups and salads, $7 to $10.75; entrees, $16.50 to $21.50
By Frank Sabatini Jr. | Restaurant Review
A friend of mine from Poland swears by the borscht soup at Pomegranate Russian-Georgian Restaurant, insisting it tastes better than what he remembers slurping in his native land. Another person I know made it a point to eat his last San Diego meal here before recently moving to South America, where butter-laced Slavic dumplings are in short supply.
And then there are the accolades scribbled all over Pomegranate’s walls by customers, not to mention quirky testimonies on the menu for dishes like shashlik, which claim that these various charcoal-grilled meats “saved the Yalta Accords between Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt in 1944.”
No doubt, delicious food is occurring at this North Park kitchen. In fact, the only Russian staples missing from the menu are bear meat and full-strength vodka, which is available at 40-proof alcohol instead of 80.
Pomegranate is run by two Russian expats with similar first names, Dzmitry Sakalink and Dmitriy Shteynbuk. The guys took over the warmly lit restaurant a year ago from elder owners who put into place a plethora of peasant dishes common throughout the republic. Sakalink had worked six years for them as a waiter, starting out when the restaurant initially operated a couple doors down from their current location. Both the recipes and hospitable all-Russian staff have remained intact.
In my initial visit with the same friends in tow, we encroached on a salad sampler laden with walnuts, garlic and aromatic spices. The Salat Oliver resembles a good, homemade potato salad with the addition of peas, while an adjoining pile of moist shredded carrots with secret spices was also expressive in flavor and appearance. If you demand garlic, the lobio is a medley of chilled beans mixed also with fresh cilantro and walnuts.
This time around we tried the finely chopped beet salad injected with “unexpected spices and herbs,” as the menu states. Sweet as expected, though with astringent bursts from walnuts, we hands-down agreed that it was the best use of red beets we ever countered.
Vareniki are the equivalent to Polish pierogis, a high-calorie appetizer of delicate, house-made dumplings stuffed with potato and cheese. Served five to an order, they sit in a puddle of melted butter and come topped with caramelized onions and sour cream. We ate them with gusto.
One of my companions decided on borscht soup and Georgian cheese pie (khachapuri) for his main meal. The ruby-red borscht presented yet another return to glorious beet land, but with the additions of potatoes, cabbage and stew beef bobbing within the classic broth. Equally hearty was the cheese pie featuring a layer of tomatoes and firm, semi-salty white cheese encased in golden puff pastry. The compatibility factor between the two items surpasses that of tomato soup and grilled cheese.
A charcoal grill on the front patio is used for cooking shashlik, which translates to your choice of skewered pork loin, chicken or lamb. Opting for the latter, we were shocked to receive four bone-in chops, each sporting succulent girth, juicy texture and caramelized flavor. Immediately before serving, our waiter squirted sweet-tart pomegranate juice over the meat. Rightfully so, as it’s the most expensive dish on the menu, priced at $21.50.
In honor of the first cool, drizzly evening we’ve seen in months, I went into winter mode with Russia’s claim to fame: beef stroganoff. The velvety stew, made with tender beef strips, mushrooms and sour cream, is served separately from the customary buttered noodles, allowing you full carb control. No matter how carefully I’ve tried making stroganoff at home, it never comes out this smooth and savory.
Dessert sparked drama at our table, as one of my companions literally turned purple while clenching his throat after sampling the spicy chocolate sauce that is applied tableside to “toad sweat ice cream.” The menu warns that the dish “is not for the faint of heart.” High doses of habanero chilies lurk within, though when eaten in combination with the ice cream and pomegranate-spiked caramel sauce, the stinging chocolate turns milder and tastes like it belongs there.
Vodka shots came into play toward the end of our meal, when a waiter began passing out a round of them to the entire house in celebration of someone’s birthday. The ritual is apparently commonplace, which along with gut-warming food and whimsical décor, contributes to the reason why people keep returning.