Borscht will warm your belly at Karloff.
Photos by Joshua Kristal
Karloff, ne Tea Lounge
I’m hesitant to tell you how good Karloff is for fear this chill and charming hangout, a crisp and casual café, and its ever-present 40s big band music, gets overrun by locals craving a nearly-perfect bowl of homemade soup, the insanely good ice cream or a cup of coffee made in a siphon—a rare and exacting method imported from exclusive tea houses in Japan to yield an unusually delicate drink… let’s just say, it’s only a matter of time before Karloff’s many delights are discovered.
Don’t let the name on the front window, in Russian font, harkening to Boris Karloff, the 30s horror flick star, set you off. Husband and wife Olga and Artur Shishko opened on Sept. 26 with hopes of creating something homey and unique. They offer four kinds of special-brewed coffee (watch for our video early this week on the “siphon” process, which looks like a chemistry experiment done in beakers), loose teas, Russian egg nog (dangerously good and warming), a full breakfast menu all day, with offerings like herb omelets, croissants stuffed with eggs, pastries, lox; and a lunch and dinner menu ranging from soups, salads, sandwiches and burgers (including a juicy chicken-dumpling burger served with purple Russian horseradish and a piquant mustard) to modern twists on Russian and Eastern European specialties such as a Hungarian-inspired beef stew and a green pepper stuffed with rice and ground beef that left me in an almost embarrassing state of verbal pleasure (yumm, ummm, ooh, that sort of thing). The latkes are very popular (crispy on the outside, moist herbed shredded potatoes on the inside) as well as the Kasha, a Russian grain, firm and nutty. There are selections for vegetarians, like a veggie platter with steamed grilled vegetables, potatoes, broccoli, zucchini and carrots, and a juice bar, too.
I sat down with Olga and Artur at dinner in their open dining area, featuring mismatched chairs, sparse décor and a large wooden communal table made by Artur, to talk about the place. Like the menu, the dining area suggests a clean and modern twist on timeless classics. There are some antiques on the walls but not too many. Laptop use is restricted to the front of the café and there’s no wi-fi, so instead you find people talking and reading. Service is very friendly but not necessarily speedy. You serve your own chilled lemon water from a glass tank.
Olga says the remarkable ice cream is Jane’s Ice Cream, a family-run operation in the Catskills that’s been making the creamy treat for 60 years. They take good care of their cows, Artur says, and have an exclusive distribution to select locations in NYC. An article in The New York Times in 1996 said Jane’s “Killer Chocolate” flavor “surpasses any other chocolate ice cream.” At that time, Jane’s was only sold in Manhattan at the restaurant in Saks Fifth Avenue. Now it’s offered at 12 locations in the city, including the Regency and Carlyle hotels.
I ask about the inspiration for Karloff.
“We wanted to bring comfort food, in a comfortable atmosphere. It’s all about comfort,” Olga says.
Artur’s soups, in which you can taste the herbal undertones and wholesome boost of a hearty broth and feel just enough bite from the vegetables inside, are definitively comforting. The borsht is popular but I prefer the country vegetable. Olga says the recipes are from Artur’s grandmother.
“It’s a spin on old-fashioned food,” Artur says. “German, Hungarian, Eastern European. We do not want to be labeled Russian. It’s far from that, this is not what you get in central Russia, no. We use ingredients they would use with our own spin. We always try to search and look for ingredients that are hard to find.”
I ask him where he gets the unusually good Kasha.
“That’s a secret,” Artur says, with a wry smile.
Olga says they’ve got distributers from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Uzbekistan, where they get spices.
“If you get the Kasha from Whole Foods, it will not taste the same,” Artur says.
The couple has been married three-and-a-half years. They met here, in the city, at a party. “It’s funny, you move to America and you meet your neighbor,” Olga says. She’s from Moscow; he’s from Minsk, in Belarus.
“Artur wanted to open a restaurant and he’s an amazing chef,” says Olga, a darling red head with freckles, who is quick to smile and laugh. You’ll almost always see Olga in the café. Artur is more behind-the-scenes.
The most surprising thing, really, about Karloff, once you taste the food, is that Artur, the chef, is not professionally trained. He learned to cook, he says, from his grandmother.
“I spent my childhood with her,” Artur says. “She was always cooking for family, neighbors, friends. That got me interested in cooking.”
Artur worked for years in upstate New York in restaurants, as a bus boy, waiting tables, managing, bartending, hosting.
“I don’t like to follow recipe books, ever,” Artur says. “You go with what you have. If today you have basil, you infuse your meat with basil. If you have parsley, you use that. Consistency is great, but sometimes you have to go with the good ingredients next to you.”
Olga says she’s a food snob and gives Artur’s creations the thumb up or down.
“Whatever he makes, he stuffs me with it,” Olga says. “I tell him if it’s good or not.”
A few customers have complained the food takes too long, or that the light from the ice cream cooler disrupts the mellow evening ambiance.
“But, we are not a restaurant,” Olga says. “We are not four-star dining. Not fancy-schmancy.”
“A lot of people are still confused as to what we are,” Artur says. “We do not want to be labeled as a restaurant. It’s an eatery. We have good distributors, and good food.”
The Shishkos are dedicated to affordability. As a result, Karloff offers omelets for $6, oatmeal and dried fruit and nuts for $5, a stuffed pepper for $7, soups for $5, and so on.
“If we are a restaurant,” Olga says, “We need to hire more waiters and busboys and provide a certain level of service. That cost would be passed down to the customers. We don’t want that. We don’t have a hostess; our menu is written on the chalk boards.”
“I just like cooking,” Artur says. “I don’t like to get too complicated. This is straightforward. When you pay attention to basics, you always have satisfaction.”
256 Court St., between Butler and Kane
Open M-F, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Sat, 9 a.m to 11 p.m. or later; Sun, 9 a.m. to 11 p.m.