Named for a mythical flower, Ruta is D.C.’s first restaurant devoted to Ukrainian cuisine. Powering the project is executive chef Dima Martseniuk, a Ukraine native, former executive chef of New York City’s famed Ukrainian restaurant Veselka, and the “ambassador of borscht,” an unofficial title he earned for helping get the soup added to UNESCO’s “List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding.”
Ruta opened in the Capitol Hill space that was previously Newland at the end of April with 40 seats inside, including a five-seat bar (where you can order a blue and yellow play on a piña colada or a Ukrainian beer), as well as a 30-seat patio. Though the decor changed between occupants—now there are stern painted portraits of Ukrainian notables on the walls, as well as flashes of blue and yellow—the space otherwise hasn’t changed much. The peekaboo kitchen in the back still gives patrons a glimpse of the unfolding action. Currently, the restaurant is open for dinner service and weekend brunch, as well as for lunch to go.
Martseniuk devised more than 100 recipes for Ruta but slimmed it down to 20 menu items. Naturally, borscht has a starring role befitting his dedication to it and its overwhelming popularity—they’re selling 50 gallons a week. To keep the dish foundationally vegan, Martseniuk uses dried porcini mushrooms to make the base rather than the usual beef or pork stock. The bulk of the soup is made with beets, cabbage, potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, and bell peppers, as well as garlic, dill, and parsley for seasoning. There’s always an acidic component, such as lemon juice or vinegar, to ensure the beets will lose their vibrant ruby-red color when cooked. Braised short rib can be added into the mix, and bowls are usually finished with sour cream and more fresh herbs. Thoroughly satiating, the borscht possesses surprising lightness and freshness.
Make sure to dunk the pampushky that arrives with it. The soft roll—the chef calls it “Ukrainian brioche”—topped with dill, garlic, and butter reads like a fancy garlic knot. One doesn’t seem like enough. I could have easily eaten two or three, then gotten another dozen to go.
Pierogi-adjacent varenyky dumplings are requisite. The tender half-moons come in orders of four or eight, stuffed with mashed potatoes, sauerkraut, short rib, or Buffalo chicken. Yes, you read the last one correctly. Martseniuk wanted to create a nontraditional version that would speak to his American patrons, so he serves them with blue cheese or Buffalo sauce rather than the usual sour cream. He plans to commercially produce and package his varenyky for the wholesale market, so they may soon be coming to a frozen foods aisle near you.
Another Ukrainian favorite you shouldn’t miss: latke-like deruny made with rice flour to keep them gluten-free. They’re served with a chunky mushroom sauce and, of course, more sour cream.
More French than Ukrainian, but still worth ordering, is freshwater bass on a bed of carrots, zucchini, and squash steamed in a parchment paper envelope with buttery white wine sauce enlivened with lemon and thyme. Arriving with steam still rising, the juicy filet pops on the palate even more when you squeeze the caramelized lemon over it.
The chef rethought traditional honey cake for his dessert menu. “The original recipe was no butter, no eggs, no fun,” says Martseniuk, who offers up a multitiered version interspersing layers of tender cake with a frosting powered with—what else?—sour cream. Martseniuk estimates they go through 500 pounds of the tangy, creamy dairy product a week. Perhaps he should hold the title of “ambassador of sour cream” as well.
Ruta, 327 7th St. SE. (202) 492-7986. rutadc.us