Magazine article Russian Life

Hold the Smetana!

Magazine article Russian Life

Hold the Smetana!

Article excerpt

The season of good will, feasting and merriment approaches. With this in mind, Russian Life asked culinary expert Darra Goldstein to contact some of the burgeoning crop of Russian restaurants in the US and give us a report on the state of Russian hospitality and culinary excellence in these restaurants. She found plenty of both. And that was just the beginning!

In an era when the Mediterranean diet is all the rage, can Russian restaurants survive in America? Based on a random sampling of restaurants across the US, the answer is a resounding yes. Russian restaurants are not just holding their own, they are thriving, and the best ones have found ways to address Americans' health concerns without forfeiting the wonderful flavors of traditional Russian food.

Nearly all of the restaurants emphasize the use of natural ingredients, accepting only the freshest products for their kitchens. (Indeed, the Russian Firebird Restaurant, which opened last month in Manhattan's theater district, goes even further, offering a menu that will change with the seasons to take advantage of the very best produce available.)

For calorie-conscious Americans, the new generation of Russian restaurants offers a wide array of grilled foods, such as several varieties of shashlyki or shishkebabs. Even the classic Beef Stroganoff can be trimmed down. At the Russian Samovar in New York, the chef mixes yogurt with smetana (sour cream) for a lighter sauce, which is only slightly less traditional.

Some of the most popular items at all of the restaurants are zakuski, the Russian horsd'oeuvres. Who needs Spanish tapas or Greek mezze when you can choose from dozens of hot and cold appetizers in the Russian style? Caviar, hot- and cold-smoked sturgeon, lightly cured salmon, crusty brown bread, sweet and sour beets, eggplant caviar, mushrooms in smetana sauce, and spicy kidney beans are just a few of the dishes to choose from.

If many Americans think that Russian food means only Chicken Kiev and bliny, then they should try the Ukrainian vareniki (dumplings), Georgian tabaka (flattened chicken), or Uzbek plov (rice pilau) that many restaurants offer up. In fact, Seattle's Kaleenka specializes in Central Asian dishes.

And if you happen to be vegetarian, a Russian restaurant is the perfect place to dine. Many restaurants emphasize the vegetarian dishes on their menus, which range from the special stuffed peppers, eggplant salad, and vegetarian pirozhki (little pies) served at Atlanta's Moscow Russian Restaurant to the chunky potato cutlets with mushroom sauce and kasha that are the house favorite at Katia's, a Russian tea house in San Francisco.

Russian dining in America can be either exotic and elegant, as at St. Petersburg in Los Angeles, or simple and homey, as at the Russian Tea House in St. Paul, Minnesota, which has been serving traditional favorites like pirozhki and Russian tea cakes for nineteen years. Yet even at this bastion of Russian home cooking some changes are evident: the chef now bakes the pirozhki instead of deep-frying them.

It is fair to say that, like other good restaurants, the best Russian ones offer delicious, freshly-made foods, with an eye to nutrition and vegetarian needs. But what sets these restaurants apart is their warm and welcoming atmosphere, where diners can experience Russian food and table traditions in all their glory. …

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