Sweet cheese-filled pancakes with brown butter and Agi’s Counter pears.
Photo: Janice Chung
A line of shoppers stretches outside the door and onto Franklin Avenue in Crown Heights. It’s the first business Sunday for the new Agi’s Counter cafe, where the food is inspired by Eastern Europe (and more specifically Hungary) and the space is packed. Maybe you stop by Agi for a cup of coffee, but you haven’t had breakfast yet and the pogača – a cookie with a fried egg and dill – looks too good. to be left out, but you change things up at the last second and walk away with the sausage. Then you realize you want something sweet, and the Gerbeaud chocolate cake catches your eye, but you land on the black cardamom spilled pineapple cake. When you’re finally ready to go, you grab a few cumin shortbread cookies that you say you’re sharing with someone else, but eat them all on the way out.
Agi, if you’re wondering, is chef Jeremy Salamon’s grandmother, who opened her cafe after a series of pop-ups. In its first week of activity, I felt like the whole neighborhood had stopped to check it out. Jessica and Trina Quinn are also here this first Sunday, and they’ve visited three or four times before. The Quinns serve Eastern European dishes in their own project, Dacha 46, with a strong influence from Jessica’s ancestral lands, Latvia and Ukraine. When Salamon walks over to say hello, Jessica pulls out housewarming gifts: a box of cookies and a box of Ferrero Rocher chocolates wrapped in gold foil. If you are an immigrant or a first generation American, you probably know that these two gifts have significant cultural significance.
The Quinns tell me that as soon as they heard what Salamon was planning, they felt an immediate kinship, and it’s hard to miss the overlaps between Dacha and Agi: Hungary shares a border with Ukraine, whence is originally half of Jessica’s family. They have both found success through crowdfunding: Agi has raised $ 66,000 from 227 funders, while Dacha has secured $ 45,000 in funding to help secure a retail space where they plan to launch their business. catering and produce frozen pelmeni. And both projects demonstrate that there is an audience for this type of cuisine that goes beyond the city’s traditional enclaves.
Jeremy Salamon is the chef and owner of Agi’s Counter.
Photo: Janice Chung
New Yorkers know Greenpoint is a good bet for Polish cuisine; Long Island City has a Romanian population that has supported a few butchers and other places that bring them a taste of home; if you want Bosnian food you go to Astoria; and if you want russian then you get on the Q and get off at Brighton Beach. Even though the city tends to run through various trends drawn from the cuisine of other countries – yakitori, regional pasta, Korean table-top grills, countless others – the food of this part of the world has remained regional and fans have had to travel. .
As a territory, Eastern Europe occupies almost 40 percent of the continent’s land, but it is difficult to determine what is really “Eastern Europe” and what is not. not. Some will tell you that it boils down to simple geography. Others will say that countries dominated by Catholic or Protestant churches, like Hungary or Poland, are more Western; while Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Armenia and countries where Orthodox Christian churches predominate are Eastern. And when you consider all the changes that have taken place in the area and all the different groups that live there, you may find yourself in an entirely different conversation. So we can’t say Eastern European food is on trend or has one time or another because what would that even mean? What we can say instead is that the story of Agi’s Counter begins in Hungary, when the real Agi fled during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, dressed in a second-hand and surviving mink coat. of lemons until his arrival in Austria at the Hotel Sacher. “She said it was such a sour trip,” said Salamon laughing, “it went well.”
Salamon grew up eating the traditional dishes that people tend to recognize – paprikash chicken, goulash – but after discovering a copy of George Lang’s 1971 book Hungarian Cuisine, he was inspired to take a trip to Hungary, stay with relatives for three months and learn all he could. Upon his return, he started running pop-ups all over town. Eventually, Salamon followed her boyfriend Michael to Los Angeles and came up with a business plan for his dream space. The only problem was that the idea didn’t suit LA. The couple therefore returned to the east. Salamon then launched its Kickstarter. “I was nauseous all the time,” he recalls. Once funded, Salamon got to work on the space at 818 Franklin Avenue, which previously housed Butter & Scotch, the bakery and bar that was, coincidentally, the first place Salamon hosted their pop-up.
There is something inspiring about the various routes Salamon took to return to where he started, cooking the kind of food his ancestors may have eaten, even though all is not well in his family’s homeland. . Last summer, in what is becoming a frightening trend in the region, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán passed a law banning all content featuring or relating to LGBTQ people in school materials or TV shows for under-18s. 18 years old. President Milos Zeman called transgender people “disgusting” in an interview. In Poland, a number of municipalities have created “zones without LGBT ideology”, while Russia passed a law banning “homosexual propaganda” in 2013.
The story of discrimination in the region is not lost on Salamon or the Quinns. “We talk about it a lot,” says Jessica, who tells me that growing up on Long Island, she sometimes thought she was the only homosexual Russian in the world. Dacha 46 is designed to be a celebration of her identity and her culture, and she remembers a time when she realized that her experience was not entirely unique. “There was a young trans man who brought his grandmother who was clearly born as the Soviet Union to our pop-up and they bonded around our food,” Jessica says. “I almost burst into tears – it was the first time that I fully understood the extent of what we were doing.”
A Pogača with egg and cheddar.
Photo: Janice Chung
The phrase “comfort food” means something different to everyone. And while I don’t have specific numbers to back this up, I suspect that for most people there is a strong connection to the food their own grandparents ate or prepared. Sitting with the Quinns at a table in the back of Agi, I found myself thinking about the history of my own family, scattered throughout the region, and why this type of cuisine seems to resonate with so many people here. moment. The food is delicious, but it always has been, so what’s different right now?
“Eastern Europeans have trained for this their entire lives,” Jessica suggests. “It’s up to us to shine. What she’s talking about is … all: political unrest, the persistent pandemic, the real elimination of an economic middle class. Shit kinda rubbish right now, in other words. Place a finger anywhere on a map of the eastern half of Europe and you’ll likely land on a spot that at some point in history was affected by one of these scenarios, perhaps Many times. It is a part of the world that is filled with contradictions, conflicts and violence aimed at one group and then another; the cycle does not end.
Nobody knows what tomorrow will bring, of course. When the going is tense – and let’s be honest: things are tense – fear of the unknown can be overwhelming. Even if you’ve never had palacsinta before, you can probably find relief, even temporary, in a sweet pancake stuffed with cheese and dusted with powdered sugar. At the very least, it helps gain the advantage.