Cafe Society

From Russia, With Love

When most Americans think of Russian food, they think of frozen gray latitudes, trudging babushkas clutching bags of turnips and beet roots, and giant cauldrons whose sour-colored contents are glopped out onto chipped plates in cramped, dark apartments. They picture borscht -- that most recognizable of old Soviet cuisine -- steaming and bright, bloody purple in the pot. Thinking in the other direction, some imagine footed silver bowls brimming with iced caviar served with tiny gold spoons. They see tables set in almost medieval, Czarist luxury; roasting game and fresh fish with indecipherable names; water crackers crusted with rock salt; and tall shots of vodka poured from beveled crystal decanters.

The dichotomy of privation and decadence: That's what we were taught to consider when thinking of the Cold War Soviet Union while sitting safe and sound in our living rooms in the pre-glasnost U.S. of A. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, they were still them, the dreaded other -- dirty red commies with nuclear missiles pointed at every back yard and playground in America. Their leaders were all vodka-drunk, caviar-slurping buffoons in furry hats whose humorless, Godless political and economic oppression had forced their people to stand endlessly in a perpetual snowstorm just to buy a few moldy potatoes and black bread while we -- the good guys -- could jump into our luxury cars and drive forty yards to the nearest McDonald's for a fat, greasy cheeseburger whenever the hell we wanted.

Using food as a tool of political propaganda was brilliant. And it worked, too, even if what was being fed to us wasn't always entirely true. Or even remotely so. We were subtly urged to pity the poor factory workers and housewives of Moscow, St. Petersburg and Archangel -- those darkly Stalinist counterparts of our own factory workers and housewives in Detroit, Peoria and Portland -- while thanking God that we lived in a land of microwavable chicken pot pies and free-market economics. Food was something we understood, and its lack was something we could all imagine even if we'd never experienced it. When we saw the bulging onion domes of the Kremlin on the six o'clock news and footage of fancy generals and beautiful, icy ladies sitting at a sumptuous state dinner framed by shots of people lining up a hundred deep in the streets for the chance to buy toilet paper, we recognized it as a stark illustration of the failures of communism and understood exactly who the bad guys were supposed to be.

And thus did a large portion of the American public miss out on something that we and the inscrutable, foreign they had in common all along: comfort food. Granted, Russian cooking isn't cheeseburgers and Bud longnecks, but to a large degree, the factory workers and housewives of Moscow were eating the same things we were serving in our own kitchens through the coldest days of the Cold War: fatty meat and potatoes swimming in butter; thick, hot soups; pickles; fried chicken and sour cream. The cooking of Russia -- the plain, common, everyday grub -- is as simple and comforting as any cuisine of solace. And, as with most comfort food, while it might be very, very bad for you, it makes you feel very good inside, regardless of whether you're eating to numb the pain of your Caddy being repossessed or to dim the memory of a mustachioed political opportunist repossessing your entire country.

But even if the food ultimately tastes familiar, just walking into Astoria Restaurant is a trip. Since the days of Yeltsin and perestroika, Astoria has occupied this space in the Russian Plaza at Leetsdale and Oneida, serving as a clubhouse for ex-pat Eastern Europeans trying to reconnect with their gastronomic roots. The front doors open onto a dark entryway, counters stacked with dusty Cyrillic newspapers and a perpetually unmanned and gloomy coat-check room. A second set of doors -- heavy, tooled in brass and set with sparkling cut-glass windows -- lead into the restaurant proper, but the disorienting weirdness doesn't end there. Step through these doors and it's like you accidentally took an Alice in Wonderland wrong turn that landed you at the Hyman Wyskowski bar mitzvah in the basement ballroom of a Decatur, Illinois, Holiday Inn circa 1978. The thirty-odd tables are draped in that kind of worn, pearlescent tablecloth you see only in hotel dining rooms, gone slightly gray from too many washings. The glasses (all stuffed with a red or white napkin teased out into a wilting rosette), plates and silver are the heavy-duty kind, selected for durability rather than style. The wallpaper has started to peel a little, the paint has begun to chip a little, and on the walls hang fading decorations in crepe and foil that you know were taped up a decade ago and forgotten.