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Caviar Emptor

Russe hour: Gourmet of Russia's time has not yet come
Lokey

Russian Food. Quick: What was the first thing that popped into your head? For many people, Soviet dining conjures up visions of fatty meat, greasy soups and overcooked cabbage. Of recipes born from suffering through long food lines only to find below-average commodities and perishables going sour. And, of course, of the world's most expensive Big Macs.

But Russia also is the land of costly beluga caviar, prized for its silky, pea-size eggs; plus osetra, sevrug and dainty golden sterlet caviars, luxuries once reserved for Russian czars. Its Caspian Sea teems with salmon and sturgeon. Its simple foods are addictive: latkes (fresh, hot potato pancakes), vareniky (boiled, buttered potato dumplings) and blini (buckwheat pancakes with sour cream and caviar or smoked salmon). Other tasty Russian classics include pierogi (dough wrapped around cabbage, potatoes, cheeses, prunes and such), fresh oysters, marinated herring, lobster, beef stroganoff and chicken Kiev.

Lest we forget, Russia also is the wonderland that brought Stolichnaya Vodka to our shores after the Revolution of 1917. If Russia's leaders had simply supplied its citizens with ice-cold vodka (the water of life) and caviar on toast points dressed with lemon, minced onion and hard-cooked eggs, they might be back in the USSR today.

So when I notice the new sign on 16th Street and Campbell touting Gourmet of Russia, I'm excited. The revolution never has taken hold in the Valley of the Sun, homogenous in its taste for Mexican, Italian, Chinese and good old American. But recent years have brought greater dining variety, including Ethiopian, Brazilian, Spanish, El Salvadoran and all manners of fusion. Maybe Phoenicians are finally ready for Russian cuisine.

Maybe the 2000 census will surprise us with news that our state's Russian population has exploded over the last decade, too, but I really don't think so. Given its nearly empty tables each time I visit, Gourmet of Russia is going to have to fight to stay in business if it's relying on strictly Eastern European guests. The scenario's more foreboding if it's hoping to appeal to curious non-Russian diners. There's no beluga, blini or even Stoli here, and without "familiar" exotica, what's the appeal?

It's unfortunate, because when the restaurant is functioning, it delivers some tasty fare. But this is clearly an underfinanced, understaffed labor of love, and the struggle shows.

The owners are Michael and Nancy Isknakov, a Russian-born couple brimming with good intentions. Nancy runs the operation, cooking, serving, answering the phones and busing. Periodically, she has help, but it's unreliable. With the size of the eatery and the aspirations of the menu, it's too demanding an undertaking for a single soul, no matter how passionate.

Occupying a former nightclub and decorated with what looks to be close-out furniture from a Chinese restaurant, Gourmet of Russia clutters the senses with a huge glass-block bar, groupings of 12-person tables, booths, a dance floor (complete with mirrored disco ball), a karaoke stage and a massive fish tank. I like eclectic, and I love creative improvisation, yet this belies too much concern for budget (at least turn the lights on in the whole place, not just for the entry tables).

The menu teases us with interesting-sounding salads, fish and deli platters, soups, kebabs and "authentic" Russian dishes. Several are starred as "highly recommended."

That's what we'll have, my dining companion and I tell Nancy Isknakov, who's also our waitress tonight. I'll start with the vinigret, a traditional Russian salad with beets, carrots and potato. Oh, no, she recommends, markovcha is much better. After a little prodding, she admits that the kitchen has no vinigret. The same thing happens when I ask for the lamb shish kebab; she steers me to beef stroganoff instead. Later, she tells me the kebab takes too long to cook. It happens with various dishes on every visit -- the kitchen is out; preparation is too time-consuming; she won't prepare it unless we order a larger amount.

That's Bolshevik. If it's on the menu, we should be able to get it.

The markovcha is, in fact, a delicious salad. It's quite basic: a mound of chilled julienne carrot and cold steamed broccoli spears. But the dice is so thin that the carrots are gloriously juicy, resting in an oil and pepper dressing that is highly spiced pleasure. The vesenney salat is a waste of $3.25, bringing a meager cup of tomato, cucumber and onion in light vinaigrette. I like a periodic special of potato salad quite a bit, though. No complex flavors here, just cubed spuds and whole peas topped with fresh dill. It's creamy light in a hint of mayonnaise and biting vinegar.

Nancy brings us complimentary samples of her pierogi to make up for not having lobby available -- a salad of kidney beans, diced beef and onions. One doughy pierogi pocket is stuffed with rice, the other with mashed potato. Both are chewy and barely average.  

When someone says "Russian" to me, my brain blurts out, "borscht." It's the country's most famous dish, an intriguing recipe, and fun to say. It's also Gourmet of Russia's best dish. A giant bowl is a steal for $4.50, hot and yummy with fresh shredded beet, cabbage and carrots in beef broth. I love the textures and smooth flavoring, especially when blended with a side of cool sour cream.

Lagmon, shoorpa and a special meatball soup aren't worth the bother. Lagmon is skinny, undercooked noodles, fatty beef chunks, carrots, celery, bay leaf and lots of halved garlic cloves soaking in very bland broth. Nancy sees me pawing dejectedly at it and takes my spoon from me, showing me how to use a fork to twirl the noodles to my mouth. Ability to manipulate utensils really isn't the problem here.

Shoorpa isn't all that different, but it is better, substituting noodles for potatoes in an interestingly sour bouillon, but it's served sadly lukewarm. Meatball soup is pure blah, in a watery consommé flecked with dill. A few harmless meatballs bob about, partnered with potato and onion slices.

My dining companion and I push away our half-empty soup bowls. Big mistake. Nancy is immediately on us, asking why we didn't like it and encouraging us to finish our portions. The attention is endearing the first time; by our final visit, my dining companion and I are embarrassed to leave any food on our plates (more on that later).

When Nancy steers us to a dish, though, whatever her motives, she's right. My suggested stroganoff is good eats, mostly because she's warned me that it's not the sour cream-based noodle dish we're expecting. Instead, so-so grade beef takes center stage, piled in a sufficient helping and humbly dressed with wine and dill. I'd rather have the classic rendition served atop noodles but am sated by sides of buckwheat and mashed potatoes, politely served in split orders when I cannot decide between the two starches. Buckwheat is native Russia, assertively flavored grains with a toasty, nutty character. Silky dill-and-garlic-spiked potatoes are international favorites, and Nancy's are as good as any mid-range restaurant in town. I leave a few bites, though, and Nancy hovers cautiously before taking away my plate. She's never had leftovers before, she worries aloud, but then decides it's okay because her dog will be pleased. No doubt.

My dining companion fares better in finishing her plov, but it's hardly an achievement, given the miserly chunks of meat with a carrot, bouillon and spice rice. Plov is akin to pilaf, and generally made with lamb. But I'm not committing myself to identifying these tough bits as anything other than most likely quadruped -- nobody complains about the small portions. A side includes an underdone mushroom (she can't chew through the stem, my companion complains) and carrots.

Why the meat is so unpredictable here I'm not sure, except that it might go back to the short staffing. When we finally weasel some lamb kebabs, it's on a relatively busy evening with several large parties. Nancy has two staffers to help, and we agree to order the minimum of three skewers (although all kebabs are offered as single spears, and even just one is generous enough to make an excellent appetizer). The onion-topped lamb is delicious, perfectly cooked and smoky in a coriander marinade.

An evening special of cabbage rolls is delightful, too blissfully sour, soft cabbage leaves wrapped around four firm bundles of ground beef and rice in a savory, mouth-puckering broth. Veggies tonight are fine: competently steamed carrot, cauliflower, zucchini, onion and whole broccoli spears (I like the stalk, tossed at too many restaurants).

Nancy is visibly happy, fluttering around the room, clapping her hands and calling, Listen up! so she can recite the specials to a group of 12. She presents us with homemade canary-colored butter spiked with lots of dill and garlic, and homemade bread with a poppy-seed crust. The bread and butter are no great shakes; shed do better just to buy it, but I appreciate her warmness as she tells us, this is from our home to you.

Whoosh. Theres Nancy, bringing a toy for a baby guest. Stopping to chat in Russian with another guest. Helping yet another group move a batch of tables into an organized clump. Sure, she still chastises us for not licking our plates clean, but tonight, its a friendly nudge.

Thats why its so difficult when I return on yet another slow evening, when the help didnt arrive, and, Im guessing, neither did the fresh food. By now, I feel like part of the group (tiny as it is) and want to support Gourmet of Russia. But how, in good conscience, can I, when my dining companions only available choice (that we havent already tried) is beefsteak? Nancy flat out says shell burn his lula kebabs (seasoned meatballs) if he orders them because she doesnt have time to watch the stove. The beef he gets surely is barely thawed minute steak, inexplicably rare on one side and burned on the other. Seasoned French fries are the frozen variety, sandblasted with overpowering dill.  

Nancy knows things arent right, telling us over and over how her help let her down, hesitating as she brings yet another subpar dish. While I appreciate the challenge of running a restaurant, I dont want to pay to hear about it.

And no way, no how, not ever do I want even the most overtaxed restaurateur to send out a piece of fish thats gone bad. The baked salmon I receive is a true health violation, the color of overripe mango and rainbow-oily with age. To send it back is pointless; I can feel the stress level in the restaurant tonight as soon as I walk through the door. Instead, I wrap the fish in napkins and slide it into my purse; I simply cant deal with the anguish of explaining leftovers.

If we could turn back time, Gourmet of Russia would have a compact menu of a half-dozen favorite dishes. It would exist in one of those tiny storefront shops that food explorers find so cool. In Bohemian surroundings, mistakes could be overlooked.

The place would do great, and Nancy could get some sleep.


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