East European Cuisine Comes to the American Heartland
After six years as owner and executive chef at Bear, the New York City establishment that won accolades for its inventive takes on classic dishes rooted in Russia and other Soviet-bloc countries, Natasha Pogrebinsky has returned to Cleveland to help restore Sterle’s Country House to its former grandeur—and with that, help propel a transformation of the largest Slovenian community outside of Ljubljana.
Pogrebinsky and Rick Semersky, the third owner of the 1954 landmark on the city’s East Side, view a creative take on classic home recipes as being central to plans to build out Hub 55, the brand for Semersky’s bubbling stew of Slavic cuisine, microbrews, clean eats, and family fun designed to draw an increasing number of old-timers and newcomers to the St. Clair neighborhood. Rather than see East 55th Street become just another polka dot on the map, Semersky and his new executive chef are collaborating on an “Eat, Drink, Polka” theme, with Sterle’s Country House as the anchor.
Adjacent to Sterle’s, the clean-eats Café 55 and Goldhorn Brewery—also owned by Semersky—have helped create more foot traffic in the neighborhood. Community-centric events like a farmers market and “Balance and Brews” (yoga and beer) keep operations bustling.
“We’re breaking that stagnation that the East Side has had for all these years,” says Semersky, who purchased Sterle’s in 2012. While the Alpine-style restaurant with tables for 20 had enjoyed a glowing reputation among locals over the years, it had recently received mixed reviews for its cuisine. Seeking to return Sterle’s to its roots, Semersky reintroduced family-style dining, a popular tradition that the previous owner had dropped.
Enter Pogrebinsky, who developed a loyal following at Bear and via appearances on “Chopped” and “Beat Bobby Flay.” Hanging up her apron at Bear, she headed back to the city where her family first resettled as refugees.
“What I did in New York was focus on modern Eastern European cooking … without sacrificing the traditions,” the 36-year-old graduate of the International Culinary Center says. She calls her arrival at Sterle’s “a perfect alignment of the right place, right time, right people.”
“She wants people, old and new, to understand this food and see it for what it is,” says Semersky’s director of operations, Julie Novak.
Pogrebinsky changes out her lunch and dinner selections weekly. On a recent visit, her pre-set, five-course family-style menu included house-made pickles and pretzels; borscht; mixed greens; and a main course of chicken paprikash over spätzle dumplings, pork schnitzel with stewed forest mushroom gravy, and eggplant ratatouille, charred Brussel sprouts, and Yukon potatoes in dill-infused butter.
Because the West had been cut off from Eastern Europe until the Cold War ended, she explains, “There are many techniques and dishes that have yet to enter the market, besides the kind of stereotypical dishes. You know, borscht, they still kind of get that wrong.”
Pogrebinsky’s borscht, of the Red Ukrainian variety, uses dill and cabbage to accompany the beets. For her beer-simmered kielbasa, she visits a proprietor in Cleveland’s famed West Side Market whose grandfather conjured up a recipe and carried it to the New World. For pan-seared pierogis, her source is a group of Old World matrons who prepare the dough and fill it with the sausage or potato-and-cheese filling that Pogrebinsky prepares. To unearth other favorites, she culls recipes from local households and visits the library, sometimes reading classic recipes in their original language.
With basics covered, the young chef’s fancy is now turning to lardo, a slab of fatback from a local butcher, cured for a couple months, sliced very thin, and seasoned only with salt. “This is something that I basically grew up on,” the former Kiev resident recalls with great warmth in her voice. “It melts in your mouth; it flavors stocks and soups and stews; it’s ideal on some black bread.” With a 1,000-gallon smoker in Sterle’s back lot, Pogrebinsky plans on flavoring her lardo in hay. “It’s a completely different flavor” that takes the sweetness from the pork fat, she says.
Sitting in the dining room, banquet room, or beer garden at Sterle’s, clientele can pair Pogrebinsky’s ever-changing creations with beverages from Goldhorn Brewery—11 on tap in all—whose Polka Pilsner is described as “light and crisp, brewed with Slovenian hops.”
On weekends, the combination of schnitzel, brew, and polka has the place jumping. “Roots are what keep us alive,” says Pogrebinsky. “Two-year-olds and 92-year-olds all eating and dancing together in one room is cool. … We lost that for a little bit, but the flame didn’t go out completely.”
A growing intergenerational appreciation of Eastern European cuisine in Cleveland and elsewhere is no fluke, she believes. “It’s like when the door opened on Indian cuisine in America, or on Asian cuisine,” she says. “I think it’s going to be very sustainable.”
Sterle’s family-style dinners are priced at $24 and served Thursday through Saturday. Its $13 lunch buffet runs Tuesday through Friday.