Taste of Eastern Europe in Binghamton

One of the things that’s struck me as odd ever since I moved to the Triple Cities in 2000 is that, despite the large population of Eastern European people in this area, there is not a proliferation of ethnic restaurants that reflect this community. Nay, our most famous and prevalent regional dish is spiedies, of Greek origin! Of course, we have countless church festivals throughout the year which proudly feature handmade perogies, stuffed cabbage (called holupki) and rugelach cookies, but until recently, there were no permanent spots that made these delicious treats available.

Right before the flood last fall, though, I spotted a new take-out menu floating around the desks of my comrades at work. On Court Street in Binghamton, A Taste of Europe had opened up, and they had perogies! Oh happy day! Melinda, who is of Russian descent but grew up in a home as thoroughly American as I did, joined me a couple weeks ago for our forray to this new delight.

The first thing you should know about dining at a Taste of Europe is that the space itself is very simple and homey. Almost what I would guess a little café in Eastern Europe would really be like. The place is small, and the attention is individual and hospitable. In fact, the owner waited on us, and his ministrations were so thoughtful and frequent, they were nearly overbearing. He explained each course to us, and created several special dishes not exactly on the menu so that we could taste a variety of offerings.

The second thing you should know is that you must order the Russian soda. The owner told us students at BU order this by the case, and I can see why. My pear variety was bursting with fresh pear taste, not too carbonated or too sweet, but the exact liquid equivalent of juicing a pear and lightening that thick lusciousness up with a little soda water. Excellent. Melinda had the cherry, and it too was fantastic. Do not miss these fruity treats.

First up were the two salads we ordered as side dishes to our meal, a cabbage/carrot shredded affair and a potato/ham/pea. I vastly preferred the shredded carrots and cabbage in a sweet vinegar dressing, which was refreshing against all the rich foods we were about to be served. The potato was dressed in a mayonnaise/sour cream dressing that didn’t do much for me, though the bits of ham, green peas and carrots in the mix were nice. I guess this didn’t feel particularly ethnic for me, but more like something brought to a church potluck? I didn’t care for it.

Next up, we split an order of 15 perogies, and they let us split the order for half potato and half cheese. We expected 15 to be way too many for us to finish, but were pleasantly surprised when the plate was brought out, and they were tiny little dumplings, about a third of the size of commercial varieties I’ve had before. The dough was superior to commercially-made perogies as well: thinner, lighter, silkier. They came swimming in the requisite pool of melted butter, and were served with little side cups of sour cream and sautéed onions. The potato were your classic offerings, though wrapped in that delicate skin – they were totally yummy with a little dollop of sour cream on each. The cheese were filled with what I’ll call farmer’s cheese, a fresh, soft-curd cheese not unlike ricotta in its bland milkiness. These were dynamite with the sautéed onions. This entire dish was what we really came for, and one of the favorite parts of our meal.

The meat course did not disappoint. We ordered both the chicken schnitzel, which the proprietor told us was a new addition to his menu, and a kind of breaded, deep-fried meatloaf with a name I couldn’t pronounce. I think the best way to get people to accept your ethnic cuisine is to deep fry it, so this guy is on the right track. I loved that neither were greasy or dried out, and both had great flavor. The little meat loaf offering was probably a mix of beef and veal – the texture of the meat was very finely ground, and it was very wholesome and filling. Less successful, for me, was the side of kasha, or buckwheat, we ordered. I had seen kasha on an episode of Man Vs. Food, and was pretty excited to try it, since grains + caramelized onions usually = yum, in my book. But this was a really bland, really heavy dish, for me. I’m sure it’s a total comfort food to those raised in that part of the world, but I didn’t care to take more than a couple bites.

We were too full after this festival of flavor to try dessert, but I have no doubt this is another course that soars at a Taste of Europe. The owner did bring us chocolates, and they were terrific. I will give A Taste of Europe a 5.5 on the BHS scale; it’s not out of this world amazing, but if you’re in Binghamton looking for a culinary adventure, this is a fun little spot, and if you’re craving perogies, it can’t be beat.

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