Friday, November 12, 2010

Dinner in Russia

Last night, I had dinner with my book club in Russia. Well, as close to Russia as you can get in midtown. And it was pretty darn close folks. Like, borscht close. Let me explain. My fabulous book club generally picks a theme for our books of the month (last night's gathering was comprised of Erin, Erin, Rachel, Rachael - I know - Brittany, and me). This month's theme was Russian literature, so we read Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago (really long with little to no character development and WAY to much about the Russian Revolution) and Dostoevsky's Notes From the Underground (really, really brilliant and surprisingly reads very contemporary). We decided that in honor of our Russian literature month, we should hold our book club at a Russian restaurant. I did a little research and made a reservation at the Russian Samovar on 52nd street. It was a great choice.

I arrived first and was met at the door by a burly man with a thick accent sporting an acrid scent of cigarettes and cheap cologne. He suavely took my coat and scarf and welcomed me. "Spasiba", I managed while holding my breath. "Puzhalsta", he grinned with a wink and a nod of the head, apparently fully aware that I had now exhausted my knowledge of the Russian language. I grinned back and walked into the restaurant. Adorable. Red lamps and garlands hung from the walls, a group of jolly young adults were laughing at a back table, and a middle aged man was spiritedly playing Korobushka on the piano (the theme from Tetris for those of you who don't know). It was an unusually cold evening (perfect for discussing Russian prose) and when I sat at the table, the host graciously offered me a cup of hot tea to warm me up. I cuddled up with the menu instead and waited for my friends.

Everything looked GROSS. And I'm a pretty adventurous eater. I know those folks over on the other side of the ocean have historically had some monumentally rough times, but do we really have to eat only smoked fish and beet soup? Really? Uh oh, I thought. I looked across the room and a lone older gentleman was staring at me curiously. He had set a lamp on the table, a bottle of wine, an empty glass, some smoked fish, and a log book. Owner, I thought. He must have been wondering what I was doing here. It seemed like the kind of place that has a lot of regulars. Luckily, my friends showed up soon. After some preliminary book discussion, we ordered a sampling of all the least offensive sounding food (and let the waiter talk us into some kind of fish blini). The waiter then offered us a hand-written list of over 20 different flavored vodkas. It was like Baskin Robbins for alcoholics. Garlic flavored? Mint? "Well, when in Rome, right?", said one of the Erins. I ordered a safe sounding chocolate vodka. Our vodkas were the first thing to arrive at the table. Very Russian. And actually very good. Strong, but good. Definitely a sipping drink.

The rest of our courses arrived quickly and were one pleasant surprise after another. The fish blini that the waiter recommended was complex, warm, and flavorful. My borscht was sweet and perfectly balanced (the greasy meat filled scone creation next to it was a different
story, but I didn't let that spoil the dish). And the most lovely surprise of all was my main course: two perfectly cooked pieces of duck with a sweet apple and plum glaze. Perfect. It was by far not the most brilliantly inventive or refined meal I've ever had (WD-50, anyone?), but it felt as if the chefs were in the back cooking their grandmothers' recipes sent straight to 52nd street from St. Petersburg. I thought, if I had to describe the food in two words, I would say it was robustly endearing. Like hugging a pudgy favorite aunt. Adding to the family ambiance,

the owner of the restaurant (well, according to my imagination, anyway) still sat with his log and bottle of wine at the table near the piano. He swayed and began to sing along with Cossack Lullaby and Midnights in Moscow. We discussed and ate, discussed and ate some more. At one point, I looked around and thought, "Well, if I never get to go to Russia, this is probably the closest I'll ever get.". I liked it. I asked Brittany to take a picture for my blog. "Why don't you take one with Baryshnikov?". I turned around. With an entire wall of framed pictures of famous Russians, I had managed to sit in front of Misha. Aw, I posed, a perfect ending to a perfect evening. Otchen harashow.

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