Pirate-Themed Russian Sushi: Gambrinus Seafood Cafe
"We're starting to wonder if the mysteries of Russian sushi are worth another visit."
At the eastern end of Surf Avenue, where the slightly sad yet beautiful remains of Coney Island morph into the Eastern European neighborhood of Brighton Beach, lies the Gambrinus Seafood Cafe.
A Russian pirate-ship-themed seafood restaurant and beer hall—yes, you heard that right—Gambrinus has a wide selection of sushi alongside the seafood-heavy Eastern European menu.
Gambrinus is amazingly tacky—lots of buoys and ropes, plastic sharks hanging from the ceiling, pirate statues and a giant fish tank—perfectly suited for its Coney Island location. Waiters are in black and white striped sailor outfits. Flat-sceen TVs on every wall blare Russian music videos. And it's filled to the brim with Brighton Beach locals knocking back massive liter mugs of Baltika lager ($12 for a liter).
We were lured in by the atmosphere and giant beers, but the food was a pleasant surprise. After an epic day of hot dog research, we stayed away from the pricier entrees and went for a bunch of appetizers to share, all simple and delicious. Sushi from a Russian beer hall sounded somewhat suspect, so we didn't try it—but everything else was so great we're starting to wonder if the mysteries of Russian sushi are worth another visit.
First to arrive was a platter of assorted smoked and cured fish ($18.99)—salmon and herring, thick-cut and enough to feed about six people. Delicious. Then came the cooked beef tongue ($7.99) with the bones and all, tender and served cold with horseradish cocktail sauce. Our pickle plate ($8.99) consisted of rough cut cabbage, pickled tomatoes, cucumbers, and pickled watermelon that blew my mind. If you're familiar with Southern-style pickled watermelon rind, this is totally different. Think massive wedges of watermelon soaked through with salty, garlicky brine. Awesome.
We also tore through a heaping plate of spicy head-on shrimp ($15.99), a few baskets of terrific Russian black bread, and my favorite—probably the cheapest thing on the menu—fried potato wedges with garlic and dill ($6.00). All washed down with those massive beers and shots of cheap Russian vodka served "family style" in a recycled tequila bottle.
Giant beers and appetizers were enough to keep us happy, but if you want to really go all-out Russian style, there's plenty of room to do so: the menu lets you splurge on jumbo King crab legs, stuffed lobster, bottles of Courvoisier, or the 50-piece sushi "love boat". Plus reasonably priced fish entrees, kebabs, stroganoff, blintzes, borscht, and that extensive sushi menu.
Don't let the sushi and pirate statues scare you away. Judging by the large groups of Eastern Europeans ordering massive plates of food and bottle after bottle of vodka, I figured we were in the right place. Brooklyn's Gambrinus is actually modeled after a beer hall of the same name in Odessa that's been there since 1893. The original Gambrinus is also outfitted with nautical paraphernalia including heavy oak barrel tables and small wooden kegs for chairs. They also have live music almost every day of the week—but no sushi.
After consulting a few of the locals we were pointed in the direction of Tatiana (a glimmering palace-like restaurant and nightclub) but due to a private party we ended up at Kebeer—a relatively new German-beer-hall themed bar and grill with a mostly Uzbeki and Georgian menu and some German, Middle Eastern, and American food thrown in for good measure. It resembles a super comfortable, Eastern European death metal band's private ski lodge—high ceilings, dark wood, tile, lots of Iron, candles; the only thing missing was a fireplace. Throw in German and Czech drafts for $4 and you're good to go. Too stuffed to eat, we went with some more liter beers, but passed on the "Big Boy Challenge": drink 4 giant beers and the 5th is free; drink the 5th: free beer for life.
Gambrinus Seafood Cafe
KeBeer Bar & Grill
1003 Brighton Beach Avenue, Brooklyn NY 11235 (map)