Cafe Reviews

Caviar Emptor

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.

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Carey Sweet
Contact: Carey Sweet