For years, I never bothered to look at Olive Tree's menu. Not only because the cafe is in the heart of a college neighborhood where cheap eats often lay the foundation for happy-hour drinks, but also because it shares a kitchen with the comedy club below. It even shares a toilet; to use the facilities, cafe customers must flag down a server, obtain the equivalent of a hall pass, make their way downstairs, and risk being heckled if they interrupt the performance.
The soup, then, was a pleasant surprise. One native Russian speaker, now a Brooklynite, recently told me that she would sooner travel to the Village than to Brighton Beach for a hot borscht like this, heavy with beef and vegetables, accompanied by sour cream and, crucially, buttered black bread ($8.75). Many visitors from the home country, she added, also take pains to seek it out. (Thanks for the lead, Maya!)
Its provenance is unclear. Although the cafe's original owner was an Israeli expat, Menachem Dworman (his son runs the business today), my informant believes that the original borscht recipe was supplied by a Ukrainian chef, untold years ago; the current keeper of the flame hails from Morocco. On a bill of fare that looks extensively to the Middle East (as it always has) and to pub grub like burgers, fries, and nachos, the borscht is an outlier. Enough so that the menu supplies instructions: Deposit sour cream atop borscht, but do not stir; take a little of both in each spoonful, and enjoy them together. There's a cold beet borscht on the menu, too, and in due time I'll give it a shot — but the hot borscht is a tough act to follow.
Olive Tree Cafe
117 MacDougal St. (West 3rd St.-Minetta Ln.), Manhattan