Moving cuisine a steppe forward

Alina Gho brings Russian cuisine to Bainbridge with 12 Chairs, now open in Winslow Mall. - ROGERICK ANAS/Staff Photo
Alina Gho brings Russian cuisine to Bainbridge with 12 Chairs, now open in Winslow Mall.
— image credit: ROGERICK ANAS/Staff Photo

Revolution, fugitive aristocrats, and a hero on a quest for hidden treasure.

All these are woven into the tongue-in-cheek plot of “The Twelve Chairs,” a hugely popular Russian novel, and later a Mel Brooks film.

Now, hopes owner Alina Gho,

12 Chairs will make a propitious moniker for her new restaurant, which began dishing up Russian cuisine in Winslow Mall last week.

Gho’s personal history has a bit of a literary ring to it, too – a Horatio Alger tale of “luck and pluck.”

The 25-year-old grew up on Sakhalin, a large island off the east coast of Russia whose Korean population – brought there as laborers for the Japanese – endured decades of discrimination.

“Russian society didn’t accept us because we were Korean, and Koreans didn’t accept us because we were born in Russia,” she said.

Life improved with peristroika and the dissolution of the U.S.S.R., so that at age 17, Gho was able to travel to study English.

As in a Pushkin tale, fate intervened in her choice of destination.

“I thought about going to London, Wales,” she said. “Then I heard a Russian band singing a song about San Diego. So I opened up the map and said, ‘San Diego, where’s that? That’s where I am going.’”

Gho spent seven years in California, mastering English and earning a degree in international business.

One visit to the Seattle area to see family friends on the island, however, and she was hooked.

“I stepped off the plane and said, ‘Oh my god, this is my city,’ Gho remembers. “The rain, the nature – it reminds me of home.”

The same confidence that brought Gho to the States prompted her to move to Bainbridge Island last year, and to make an unsolicited offer to buy the eatery La Belle Saison.

“Anything I haven’t done, I think I should do,” Gho said. “I like challenges.”

Edible heritage

Now tastefully made over in rich reds and golds, 12 Chairs (there are, in fact, some 30 seats for diners) is already drawing repeat customers.

The lunch and dinner menus combine popular dishes – borscht, of course, and beef stroganoff purportedly made from “Count Stroganoff’s secret recipe” – with unfamiliar and intriguing choices like shchi (a sauerkraut-based soup) and pelmeni (meat dumplings).

One tradition that’s not on the menu is vodka – in part, Gho says, to steer away from stereotypes.

Gho admits that, before moving to the States, her own expectations were similarly uninformed.

“What I knew about America was what I saw in the movies,” she said.

For a young woman who had been preparing meals for her parents since age 7, Americans’ penchant for eating out came as a shock.

“I was amazed when I came here,” she said. “In Russia, it’s tradition, even a duty, to cook at home at least twice a day.”

Now she’s turned that difference into an opportunity to share her heritage with her customers.

“I don’t want them to just come in, eat, and leave. I want to teach them a little about Russian traditions, the culture,” she said.

“If they leave happy, then I am happy. That’s Russian hospitality.”

* * * * *

12 Chairs in Winslow Mall is open for lunch and dinner noon to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, noon to 9 p.m. Saturday, and 6-10 p.m. (dinner only) Sunday. Closed Mondays.

Information: 780-4064.

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