Perhaps the women are instead tending to the jungle of houseplants (cacti, dracaenas, ivy) that cram the storefront's entranceway and bay window. Or maybe they're rearranging the artificial flowers, with their shellacked-on dewdrops, that rest in stem vases atop each of Dvin's nine tables. There are straight lace curtains to wash, fruit-and-floral-patterned plastic placemats to wipe down. There are rainbow-colored ceiling fans (which remind me of those rainbow-colored caps with the propellers on top) to dust, and rows of framed landscape paintings on the walls and Russian nesting dolls in the unrefrigerated deli case to keep orderly. So it's no wonder that when I arrive, the restaurant's front door is often locked, neon-lit "Open" sign be damned. When I knock, one of the women answers in a housekeeping smock.
As I take my pick of tables, the younger woman will ditch her smock and dutifully fetch me a plastic-sheathed menu, creased and tattered, and a paper-napkin roll-up. She'll also turn on some music, something Europoppy or this one blowzy chanteuse who must be the Edith Piaf of Greece, while the older woman retreats to the kitchen.
The waitress will jot down my order and take it to the kitchen. I like to pretend that the back of the house is the setting for an Eastern European sitcom/reality/cooking show. Occasionally I'll hear them bicker back there in their thick native tongues, and I'll think it's like Sanford and Son meets It's a Living, or the episode of Seinfeld where Elaine couldn't tell if the Korean ladies in the nail salon were making fun of her. But I also dream of watching the cook-woman work, with lots of close-up shots of her adroit, expert hands chopping garlic and eggplant, stirring a cauldron of borscht, rolling meat. I wish I could be a great meat-roller, but I don't trust my spastic knife skills to carve a pocket inside a breast or filet without splitting the thing wide open.
And when my food arrives and I dig in, I entertain myself by thinking: Do they realize how great their food is? Was an everyday meal behind the old Iron Curtain really this good and fresh, this imbued with homemade goodness?
Meat blintzes: four mounds of ground chicken -- which gives the meat an airiness and a delicacy that could never be achieved in plain old breast meat -- wrapped in crepe-thin pancakes that carry a seductive honey flavor. Chicken Kiev: more chicken, two fist-size portions of it rolled around a center of fresh herbs, lightly breaded like they've been sprinkled with pixie dust and oh-so-lightly fried, sided with a nimble, couscous-y rice and a dollop of cold tomato compote. Armenian dip, a twist on standard hummus: kidney beans, fried white onion, olive oil and sesame seeds, something like refried-bean dip but more special, with more integrity and texture.
Roasted red peppers: delectable slices of sweet bells, marinated in olive oil and garlic until they drip and ooze Mediterranean sensuousness, topped with sliced black olives and crumbled feta. Vareniky: a signature of Ukranian cuisine better known stateside by their Polish name, pirogies -- delightful and almost silly, doughy dumplings that resemble half-cooked ravioli, coagulating into a single mass of starch around their mashed-potato-and-cheese stuffing. And goulash -- who knew goulash could ever be this sprightly and earthy? Another Ukranian interpretation on Dvin's menu, it foregoes Hungary's sour cream and buttered noodles, allowing its watery beef broth, assailed with herbs like cilantro, paprika and rosemary, to take center stage.
How strange that while their food possesses a sense of sweetness and light, the Dvin women's own demeanors can read -- at least here, in the relatively affable land of the Midwest -- as stern and humorless. There's a firmness to the waitress' reply when we ask her what herbs are in the goulash: "I don't know. She cooks." Later that evening, when we inquire about dessert (baklava and napoleons are listed on the menu), she tells us they're all out. We suspect she just wants us to leave.
Usually small, family-style establishments like Dvin make up for what they can't provide in hip cuisine and expensive flatware with just-plain-folk personality and charm. If Dvin has a certain charm, its cut-and-dried charmlessness is its charm.
I didn't want to peel back the curtain (iron, lace, whatever) and find out the true story of Dvin, partially because I'd be robbing myself of my little fairy tales, and partially because I was worried they'd hang up the phone on me when I put on my reporter's hat and called. In fact, I was instructed to show up in person if I wanted to ask questions, so I did.
Dvin is owned by chef and Russian native Lidiya Skilioti, who bought the place from its existing Armenian owners nine years ago. She never cooked professionally back home, but since moving to the U.S. around 1990 she's worked at a Bob Evans and at Brandt's in the Loop. Her daughter, Natalya, has been waitressing for her at Dvin for the past seven years. They told me that their head count at the restaurant varies widely, even on a Saturday night.
I asked Lidiya why she decided to take the plunge and buy her own restaurant. She answered, "I love making food and everything. Here, we do only homemade and hand-cooked. Only natural and fresh."
A few minutes later, I thanked them for their time and got up to leave. Lidiya headed into the kitchen once more, but Natalya instructed me to sit tight a moment. We chatted about the weather. It was kinda nice.
Lidiya came out from the kitchen. She passed me a to-go box. Inside was a piece of crumb cake with a thick, creamy slab of cheese filling.
I took it home and ate it that night. It was delicious, just as I imagined it would be.