When Bonnie and Israel Morales opened the original Kachka on Grand Avenue in Portland back in 2015, the restaurant was an immediate hit. The intimate, dimly lit restaurant serving upscale Russian fare—with the best vodka list in town—was something that few people in the area had seen before. For most diners, the experience was akin to a “where have you been all my life?” moment.
This year, Bonnie (who is the chef) and her husband Israel (who runs the front of house) converted their original space into a more casual dumpling and drinking establishment called Kachinka, and moved their flagship restaurant to a bigger building a few blocks away. The new space offers a different take on the original idea, with a cheerful, drinking hall-like dining floor and a private dining room. We’re big fans of the couple’s pioneering and, shall we say, intoxicating restaurants, so we caught up with them to ask about how they approached this fresh venture and what's next on their horizon.
Congratulations on opening in the new space! How is it different from the old space and what was the inspiration behind it?
"Thank you! It's very much like giving birth - a very personal and challenging endeavor. The space itself is just pretty much opposite the old space. Where the old space was super skinny and long and dark, this space is square and open and airy with tons of natural light. It seemed silly to fight the new space to try to force the old location vibe into it, so we worked really hard to try to translate the aesthetic without forcing it. The space is divided into three areas and each area is inspired by a different aesthetic.
The main dining area has what I think of as mid-century Moscow apartment vibes. Parquet floors, wallpaper, a Persian rug on the wall. The server station is a repurposed mid-century hutch. The lounge area is inspired by a Soviet industrial aesthetic. The main focal point are these two metal plaques some of our employees found in an abandoned distillery in the suburbs of Minsk when we went on a staff trip in 2017. The third area is a private dining room. We wanted that to feel a little more Euroglam-chic. There are cut crystal chandeliers, several reproductions of famous Russian works of art, deep red walls that are reminiscent of the Hermitage museum."
Bonnie, you started your career in product design before becoming a chef. Has that background affected your food and the way you approach your restaurants?
"Absolutely. I mean there are some direct effects: the logo, menu design, restaurant design, etc. are all things I have developed. But my background also influences the way I think about food. When I think about developing a new dish, I see it as a design problem. It's hard to describe, but I basically go through the steps of product development. Industrial design *should* always be about the end user. I think about usability and experience just as much as flavor and technique."
Everything from the music to the décor to the pacing of the meal feels very coherent at Kachka. Israel, as the front-of-house guru, what’s the most challenging part of creating that environment for guests?
"My goal is to create an environment that doesn't feel like any other place in Portland or even this country. Continuity is the name of the game here - everything must match. One of the greatest tools I have environment-wise is ultimate flexibility with lighting/sound zones. I love dimmers! Tweaking the lights or music in a way that creates a warmer feel is my constant task. My biggest challenge is the fact that we are in a brand new building. How do you make something feel like Babushka's house when it's concrete walls and 24 foot ceilings? Bonnie and I are always adding to the decor to help create a more warm, home-like environment. Our floor staff is great at conveying that sense of hospitality to help create that warmth too. I'm sure as we settle into our space, things will feel more and more like home."
The new space puts many Schoolhouse light fixtures to good use. How does beautiful lighting contribute to the dining experience?
"Those lights are just perfect for our space! Lighting is everything. The type of light cast can communicate mood. Can put you at ease or on edge. It can encourage you to relax and stay a while or get you to hurry up and get out. We wanted lighting that would transport guests to another time and place and get them to relax and hang out there for a while."
There aren’t many Russian restaurants in Portland, at least by comparison to how many places there are to get pasta, ramen, or tacos. Did you have any anxiety that the concept wouldn’t work here or did you know coming into it that you had something special and different?
"A lot of anxiety for sure! This cuisine doesn't get a lot of love in most of the country (not just in Portland) so most people thought we were crazy and you start to question your decision. Honestly, restaurants have so many intangibles that it's hard to ever know if you have a success on your hands or not. We just feel fortunate that Portlanders are interested in checking out what we have to say."
If it’s a person’s first time at Kachka, what’s the best way to order?
"We focus heavily on Zakuski which are basically cold dishes meant to accompany vodka. If you are a more adventurous eater, getting the Ruskie Zakuski Experience (a small taste of pretty much every zakuska on the menu) is a fantastic way to start off. Grab a few carafes of vodka infusions to go with it. Our horseradish vodka has somewhat of a cult following. After zakuski, grab an order or two of any of the pelmeni or vareniki. Those are handmade dumplings with various fillings. We have a special type of grill called a Mangal. So be sure to try a skewer or two off that section of the menu. Besides that, I'd say to try anything that strikes your fancy. We have a certain number of dishes that are fixtures, but so many things change on the menu that I don't want to recommend a specific dish that might not be there when you come in."
What are your personal favorite items on the menu these days?
"Potato Vareniki with Caviar Beurre Blanc. Lamb Ribs 'Po Bukharski'. Buckwheat Custard."
Can you tell us anything about your forthcoming Lavka deli project?
"Yes! We are hoping to open that in the Spring of 2019. Lavka is an Eastern European style deli that will feature sandwiches, salads, frozen Kachka dumplings to take home, bottles of Kachka horseradish vodka for purchase, and a well curated selection of our favorite Eastern European pantry and deli staples: cured meats, cheeses, smoked fish, pickles, mustards, etc."
Finally, do you have any late-night, go-to meals in Portland for when you get off work?
"I am a total homebody AND I have two small boys so I have more daytime spots than late night spots. I'm really super into the new Cloudforest space. First off they make amazing chocolate but they opened a cafe that has phenomenal coffee plus pastries from Trifecta. A major bonus is that they always have a couple of their chocolates out for tasting. Even though I've tried every single one of them, I totally pretend it's my first time every time. I'm sure I'm fooling no one."
Photography by Ellie Lillstrom