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.
At some point in the future, White Nights plans to offer evening entertainment. For now, there is simply a sound system. A switch in tapes startles Goat. "Oh, no," he exclaims. "Is this the Electric Light Orchestra?" Hoping to calm him, I assure him it's just violin music.
We end our meal with the only Russian dessert in the house. Called mekada, it is a sweet confection made of layers of wafer cookie and a nutty raisin-honey spread. The exact ingredients? According to our waitress, they're a secret, and Mom in the kitchen intends to keep it that way.
"I don't even know," the daughter confesses. "She won't tell me." I like mekada so much I wish I had a whole one to myself.
Though it has some rough spots to work out, White Nights earns an A for effort. For instance, when I request herbal tea after my meal, the owner invites me into the adjacent deli that sells take-out food and imported groceries. She points to some sealed boxes of herbal tea on a grocery shelf. "Pick one," the owner commands. "We'll open it." A few minutes later, my peppermint tea is served in a small white teapot. When the water grows cold, it is freshened with hot. The Russian Tea Room it isn't, but White Nights will go to any length to give you tea. And that will have to suffice for now. The vodka (another potato product!) won't be flowing until their liquor license is approved. When it is, maybe they'll serve shots of Stoli with sprigs of dill. I wouldn't be surprised.
Hoping to get the scoop on an obscure Eastern European restaurant known only to insiders, I call Stanley's Polish Deli to solicit their recommendation for a good Polish meal.
Stanley's directs me to The Golden Prague, a veteran player perched on the edge of Sun City in Peoria. Since I haven't been to this Czechoslovakian and Polish restaurant in several years, I decide to give it another try. Because he is so entertaining on a long drive, I drag Goat with me.
We make the trek out to 94th Avenue on a Monday night. It's slow at Golden Prague, which has all the gaiety of a funeral parlor. We are the only ones in the dining room when we're seated at 6:45. Pink silk flowers and green plants line the room in cheerful ignorance of its emptiness. Polka music fills the quietude. Lace curtains hide Peoria Avenue outside.
Our youthful waitress is all hyped up with no one to serve. She can hardly wait to run into the kitchen with our order. In fact, she takes off like a roadrunner before we've even done ordering. We have to call her back to tell her we want appetizers and beverages.
Mere seconds later, she brings us our soup and salad. She mouths the same old rationale: "Your appetizers will take a while, so I thought I'd bring these out first." Arrrgh.
After tasting the salad and soup, I'm sorry she even bothered. I've been pretty lucky with soups lately, but my luck runs out at Golden Prague. The beef noodle soup is simply awful. Tan, overcooked noodles float in salty, barely warm beef broth. I eat two spoonfuls, then put down my spoon. The salad is only slightly better. It's strictly institutional fare: iceberg lettuce, tomato and bermuda onion with a big glob of bleu cheese dressing on top. I hope things improve as the meal progresses.
And, briefly, my wish seems to come true. Our appetizers are not horrible. In fact, I quite like the potato pancakes. They're nicely greasy and hot--but I have to request sour cream. Our waitress seems surprised. "You want sour cream?" she asks. Yes, I do. She dutifully brings two baked potato-size portions. Mmmmmm-mmmmm, it only makes the pancakes better. Potato-stuffed piroghi also are pleasant. The boiled, crescent-shaped dumplings are the size of Chinese potstickers. Dripping with butter (but no dill), they are vaguely sour and have a nice doughy texture. Still, for me, they're a little too bland to get hepped up about. I guess I'd rather be from a country whose natural resource is olives or lemons or chilies than potatoes.
An older couple enters the dining room and the staff comes alive. Regular customers! People they know! There is much banter. "It's good to see you," says one waitress. "It's been slow tonight. Did you chase everyone away?"
Ah, here come our entrees. Our waitress plunks them down on the table and returns with a yellow squeeze-container of Plochman's mustard. "You might want that," she says offhandedly.
I know we're dangerously near Sun City, but does everything have to look so institutional? Hospital food is all I can think of when I examine our roast loin of pork Veprova and fresh Polish sausage. Each plate has three things on it: meat, potato or dumpling, and an orange-slice garnish. Sweet-and-sour cabbage and sauerkraut are served in separate compote dishes. As a final indignity, the mashed potatoes obviously have been shaped by an ice cream scooper!
Though the ten-inch, crackly, fresh Polish sausage is flavorful and nice, nothing can redeem the meal for me at this point. I rebel at the sight of it, and I'm not too keen on its taste, either. The sweet-and-sour cabbage and sauerkraut are unappealing, mushy and room-temperature. The pork loin is thick, dry and boring. The sliced dumpling reminds me of a sponge. I am not happy.
Our waitress zips over to our table to make sure we're still alive. She hovers hardly long enough for a response. With the help of Plochman's, we finish off a good eight inches of sausage, but ask to pack away the pork for later.
I inquire about dessert and am given three options: rainbow sherbet, vanilla ice cream or kolatschen. "It's like a danish," our waitress says. ("What, no tapioca?" Goat wonders aloud.) Need I tell you what we select?
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SHOW ME HOW
An instrumental version of "Our Day Will Come" fills the dining room when Roadrunner brings us our pastries. She is right on target with her description. Kolatschen resembles a small cream cheese danish. Served hot, it ranks up there with the potato pancakes as one of the highlights of the meal. But it's too late for redemption.
We are in and out of Golden Prague in an hour and fifteen minutes. Frankly, it's not too quick for me. Since I last visited five years ago, food and service have really taken a dive. Golden Prague needs to straighten out its priorities and quit catering to the Sun City clientele. If the food is good enough, people will make the trip. I know I would.
White Nights Russian Restaurant and Deli, 13822 North 32nd Street, Phoenix, 493-2406. Hours: (Restaurant) Thursday through Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m. (Deli) Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The Golden Prague Restaurant, 9440 West Peoria Avenue, Peoria 878-0557. Hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.; Monday, 4 to 8 p.m. 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.
NOT FOR WHITES ONLY TRACY CHAPMAN GETS B... v5-16-90