Breakfast in the Bay Area comes in many shapes and forms, but farmer’s cheese isn’t commonly on the agenda. What if, though, the humble ingredient was hiding inside plump, sweet pancakes, made with flour and eggs and doused with sour cream and jam? Syrniki, the nostalgic treat every Slavic child (including myself) grew up eating, embodies this prospect — and they’re taking over the Bay Area.
“Syrniki can be described as ricotta pancake-meets-mini cheesecake,” says Anya El-Wattar, the chef and owner of San Francisco’s fine-dining Russian restaurant Birch & Rye. “They are hands-down the favorite breakfast in my family.” Indeed, texturally interesting — soft, but with a bite — and combining a comforting vanilla flavor profile with the tang of sour cream and the sweetness of fruit toppings, syrniki’s popularity in former Soviet Union countries has overcome generational shifts, wars, and regime changes. They can be found at fast-casual chains and upscale restaurants in Russia and Ukraine, and just about every Slavic mom and grandma has her own recipe.
When it came to planning the menu for Birch & Rye’s new brunch offering, El-Wattar simply couldn’t exclude them. “I wanted to share this memorable version of my family’s favorite breakfast by creating an elevated version for our diners,” she says. At the restaurant, the tvorog — the Russian word for quark or farmer’s cheese — is made in-house, and mixed with einkorn flour, cardamom, and orange zest, among other ingredients, then baked in individual molds, to create delicate syrniki.
Currently, according to El-Wattar, syrniki are the most-requested item on the restaurant’s brunch menu, even though it’s possible not all patrons know they’ve come up close and personal with an icon of the Slavic culinary canon.
Those aiming to try a more classic version of the dish, one that’s oval and pan-fried, can head to the year-old Lele Cake in Los Gatos. Owned by Elena Leskina, who immigrated to the Bay Area from Moscow five years ago, the bakery was originally destined to showcase Leskina’s cakes and pastries. But, having seen her make syrniki on social media, friends begged her to add them to the menu. The simple treat — made with nothing but the freshest farmer’s cheese Leskina could find, plus wheat flour, salt, and eggs — gets a touch of sweetness from raspberry coulis upon serving. The finishing touch is a pampering heap of sour cream mixed with whipped cream for extra airness.
First, she says, it was mostly Eastern European customers who’d order the syrniki, but then those unfamiliar with them started too. “Customers would say, ‘oh, they’re so small,” Leskina says. “But after trying, they admit syrniki are very unexpected and filling. They got protein, carbs, everything you need.”
While syrniki, which are also available at Cinderella and at Red Tavern in the Richmond District, are predominantly a breakfast dish, they work just as well as dessert. That’s at least what Sergii Shukailo, the owner of the Ukrainian restaurant Leleka in downtown San Francisco, thinks. The restaurant opened in 2017, but syrniki are a relatively recent addition; here, they are made with a light dusting of rice flour to keep the dish gluten-free, then baked and finished in the pan for crispiness. Homemade raspberry jam is offered on the side. “We were thinking of unique desserts to expand the menu with,” Shukailo says. “This isn’t a cake, tart or brownie. Syrniki really stand out.”
Enthusiastic customers have been known to double their order to receive four pancakes instead of two, or to arrive just to eat them, skipping the mains, he says. The original target audience has been, according to Shuklo, driven by childhood nostalgia — but syrniki are becoming a crowd favorite regardless of customers’ heritage. “People without a Soviet Union background might not crave them, at first,” he says, “but once they try syrniki, they’re pretty satisfied.” It’s hard to imagine anything but this outcome.