After a miserable morning of standardized exam-taking in Brookline, Massachusetts, I happened upon a combination Russian grocery store and cafe. The cafe, on the second floor, is a giant space, with bare white walls, a massive skylight, and white-finished hardwood floors adding to the overwhelming emptiness. Then again, it could have also felt empty because I was the only person there.

Not that the place was without decoration, though. Charmingly cheesy gold tinsel garlands were wrapped around pillars, and there were a few stern-looking Russian paintings around. The Roland XP-50 and the white baby grand piano that were tucked in the corner made me certain that the place was was all one big hallucination. Great. I must have gone insane after the Analytical Section.

I was handed a menu by a kindly and extraordinarily surreal Russian waiter, who seemed to disappear and reappear out of thin air. As I had expected, the one page menu contained mostly beef, cabbage, and potato dishes with several charming misspellings. ‘Dear Guest, this menu represents the most popular items serving for lunch in Russia. We hope you will find your meal delicious. Bon appetite [sic]!’ Items on the menu included ‘Blintzes Stuffed with Meat: Very Russian”; ‘Chicken Cutlet ‘Pozharsky”, (which was described as ‘Breaded ground chicken meat with our special sauce’); and ‘Ground Meat Cutlet ‘Russian Village’: Our special…just yami-yami’ (?!) Borscht was described as ‘famous Russian soup rich of red beats [sic], potatoes and carrots.’ I tried two of the four non-cow things on the menu — the cabbage pirozhki appetizer ($4) and potato vareniki ($5). Cabbage pirozhki were phyllo dough pastry puffs filled with a wisp of cabbage and what appeared to be approximately one pound of melted butter. Vareniki were enormous potato dumplings topped with fried onions, swimming in butter. I couldn’t really handle the pirozhki; they were so heavy that even though I was nearly dying of hunger, I couldn’t manage more than a few bites. The vareniki, on the other hand, was possibly the most well-executed Eastern European potato creation I had eaten in a long while. I couldn’t finish that either, though.

They didn’t have any of the desserts listed on the menu, except for the fruit salad with ice cream, which I thought would be boring. It ended up being kind of interesting, actually — presented by Surreal Waiter with a flourish as a rather unconventional mixture of finely chopped fruit in a flower-shaped wafer bowl, topped with strawberry ice cream that tasted rather oddly and pleasantly of bubble gum (I had ordered vanilla ice cream, but the cook ‘didn’t understand,’ according to Surreal Waiter, who apologized profusely. I told him I didn’t mind.) With whipped cream and those little colored sprinkles on top. It’d been about ten years since I’d eaten anything with colored sprinkles on it.

I can’t pinpoint exactly why I love this place. Maybe it’s because of the intermittent sounds of people screaming in Russian over the intercom, which made me nostalgic for my childhood piano lessons. Or maybe it was the Louis Armstrong piped over the speakers, oddly calming and yet strangely incongruous with the whole Russian cafe concept. (The abrupt transition from Louis Armstrong to the Phantom of the Opera soundtrack, though, was incredibly harrowing.) The big mirror ball hanging from the skylight, and the dodgy hours that the cafe is open (Tuesday to Sunday, noon to 3 pm) made me wonder if the whole cafe concept was really just a front for some sort of underground Russian discotheque. And, shit, I can’t think of many things more suave than Russian disco. Take that, hipper-than-thou hipsters!

After it was all over, I walked outside. The snow had stopped and the sun was shining intensely. I walked across the street to Gimbel’s and bought a bottle of whiskey.

The exam soon became a distant memory.