Behind the counter, Carlos is spooning a batter made from grainy whole wheat flour, cage-free eggs and grass-fed milk onto large, flat griddles. He’s got a mise-en-place at his disposal that allows him to grab, for example, cashew cream, artichokes, greens, sun-dried tomatoes and olives to top this cooked cross between a crepe and a pancake, which he then spins jellyroll-style, into a ready-to-eat hand-held meal.
Blinis! He’s making fluffy, spongy, light blinis at this wisp of a cafe called Dolya on busy Newark Avenue in downtown Jersey City, and they’re not exactly of a Doc Zhivago vintage. Carlos smiles as we ask what blini on the lists of salty and sweet selections doesn’t get ordered as often as it should. “The San Marino Sunset,” he replies, listing the ingredients I mentioned above, but notes that the Goldie Lox is a fan favorite at this new and different entry into the local restaurant lineup.We order the San Marino, the Goldie Lox, the Babushka and the Holy Grail. Carlos seems impressed, though Andrea, his cookie-baking cohort behind the counter, takes it all in stride. She’s filling thumbprint cookies with strawberry preserves or melted chocolate. I know I’m in the middle of a blini-eating fest, but I can’t resist asking.
“Can I try one of those cookies?” I ask Andrea, who has just slipped the thumbprints onto a platter. She’s happy to oblige and, as I taste this perfect, crumb of a cookie with its mildly sweet berried center, I know Andrea’s not slicing batter from a prefabricated log. Who is this woman?
“I’m a pastry chef from Chile,” she says, as Carlos finishes another blini for my table. Of course. The cookie is light, the balance of filling to crumb perfect. And—no kidding!—she was baking these cookies in a toaster oven.
There’s a lot going on at Dolya, which opened last fall and seats maybe eight adults who are very good friends or a Brownie Scout Troop on a field trip. It’s tight quarters here, and most of the food is prepared for take-out. “Pick up a blini on the way to work, join us for lunch, or grab a simple dinner for the family,” advises owner Oksana Yaremchuk.
It’s the blini lifestyle, circa 21st-century Jersey City.
I’ll rank the savory blinis we sampled in order of preference:
1) The Carlos-touted, Andrea-approved San Marino Sunset. That cashew cream, scented with oregano, plays coyly off the marinated artichokes and salty-sweet sun-dried tomatoes, while the crisp greens add bite and texture to the wrap. This is my new favorite sandwich.
2) Babushka, which combines mashed potatoes, sauteed onions, Cheddar, slivers of scallions and shards of bacon. If you’ve ever had a “loaded” baked potato, you get the idea. It’s delicious fun, especially when you get a hit of the horseradish cream in a bite.
3) Holy Grail, in which overcooked chorizo mingles with apricot jam, a schmear of goat cheese and packed-tight leaves of arugula. If the chorizo wasn’t dry, this could’ve been a contender for the top spot. The Holy Grail needs juicy meat to be a true legend.
4) Goldie Lox, a hat tip to a bagel sandwich, with smoked salmon and mascarpone, slices of cukes and red onions, flashes of lemon and capers. Problem here was that the salmon wasn’t top-notch and its high salt component dominated the wrap that leaned mushy.
The two sweet blinis we tried finished in a dead heat. Possibly I liked the P.U.C., which is chunky with pineapple sauteed in brown butter and wrapped with dulce de leche, black cherry cream and pecans, a smidgen better than the Malinka, which partners coconut-laced dulce de leche with sweet cashew ricotta, raspberries, crushed pistachios and toasted coconut. But, then again, I liked the do-si-do between the coconut elements and that creamy ricotta a lot.
Now that you’ve got blinis on the brain, I have a feeling you’re going to look up Dolya the next time you’re flying low over Jersey City. If I had a keyboard that typed in Russian, I’d be spelling out “good idea” in a Moscow minute.
Dolya, 128 Newark Avenue in Jersey City. 201-433-5200; dolyacafe.com. Open Monday through Thursday from 8 am to 8 pm, Friday from 8 am to 10 pm, Saturday from 10 am to 10 pm and Sunday from 10 am to 8 pm.Click here to leave a comment