Potatoes, potatoes, potatoes.
Dill, dill, dill.
My faithful dining accomplice Goat and I are eating dinner at the White Nights Russian Restaurant and Deli on Phoenix's north side. Located in Kino Plaza at 32nd Street and Thunderbird, this very building use to house Phoenix's premier thrash-metal venue.
Five years later, the restaurant bears more resemblance to a Holiday Inn meeting room than a dark and smoky rock club. Gray carpeting, gray stackable chairs, maroon tablecloths and blank walls give the dining room a sterile and temporary look.
In all fairness, perhaps our visit is premature. White Nights has been open only a few weeks. Still, world affairs affect me in an odd way: They make me hungry. Current events in Lithuania and Eastern Europe have compelled me to seek out this region's cuisine--no easy task in Phoenix, as you know. Though the menu isn't overly large or daunting, we ask our young waitress to help us narrow our choices. "I was raised on this stuff," she demurs. "It's all good." Great! We settle on several dishes and entertain ourselves listening to Russian pop music a la Steve and Eydie.
A Chuck Daly-Tommy Heinsohn sound-alike at a nearby table commands our attention with his loud pronouncements. "Potatoes like this are not fattening," he tells his tablemates. "It's what you put on them." He continues lecturing in this sagelike fashion throughout our entire meal. Our soup and salad arrive before the appetizers. Has this happened to you lately? My savvy dining accomplice Goat asks me if this is a new trend. Seemingly it is, and I'm not happy about it. Call me a traditionalist, but I want my appetizers to appear before the salad or soup. If, as the staff frequently explains, the appetizers "take a while," I'm willing to wait. The soup is borscht. It is warm, not hot. It is also not beet-colored, but light brown and filled with peppers, potatoes, carrots and dill. Sour cream (as common in Russian cooking as butter) is brought in a small dish. I add a dollop or two to my soup. Though the borscht is sweet and tasty, I prefer the cold, purple version I've eaten elsewhere.
Goat, whose grandfather escaped from Russia early in the century, has never eaten food from his ancestral homeland. He is excited to try it. Sampling the salad, he notes, "So, even Russians like iceberg lettuce!" Indeed, there's nothing too unusual about the salad: It comes in a bowl and is seasoned with fresh dill.
Our waitress brings our three appetizers: Olivia salad, Russian piroghi and Siberian pelmeny. We have, by now, concluded she is probably the owners' daughter.
The Olivia salad, a Russian potato salad, is decidedly unglamorous for $3.95. Served in a cup, it is more a side dish than a salad. The only greenery here is a sprig of--you guessed it--fresh dill. The salad itself is egg-flavored and features finely chopped potatoes, peas, onions, pickles and bits of chicken that Goat insists taste like tuna. At this price, it's hard to get too excited about it.
For $4.75, we receive two Russian piroghi. Deep-fried to a golden brown, they are stuffed with (surprise!) potato. They're pretty bland, but come with a mushroom sauce to liven things up. Sadly, the ruffled paper pantaloon on the handle of the mushrooms' serving dish can't disguise the fact that these fungi are canned. As a result, the potato piroghi are just okay.
The Siberian pelmeny are a little better. We receive about a dozen or so of these little dumplings, a cross between won tons and tortellini. They come piled in a bowl and are dressed with butter and--yep--dill. I like them. They're best when swirled in the dill butter then popped into the mouth.
As Mr. Miami Beach holds forth on the relative merits of hot versus cold borscht, Goat expresses his own insights into Russian food. "Nothing too exciting," he says. How true. Of our meal so far, the two major themes would seem to be potatoes and dill. Nothing changes substantially when our entrees are delivered.
The beef stroganoff is surprising for its lack of noodles, rice or spaetzle (tiny dumplings). Instead, hand-hewn French fries fill out the plate. The fries are hot, fresh, salty, greasy and sprinkled with--need I say it?--dill. The stroganoff itself is not as tender as I would like. The thin strips of beef covered with sour-cream-thickened gravy are on the chewy side. Additionally, for $10.95, I'm dismayed by the underwhelming portions.
Stuffed cabbage rolls are hot and covered with sweet, red-orange gravy. The meat-rice stuffing is quite good. Goat's comment? "Taste just like my mother used to make, and she's not the Russian." So what, I like them. They're not quite as bland as everything else.