Bite Me

According to Gorizont (Horizon), a popular Russian-language newspaper published in Colorado, this state's population of ex-pat Russians is now 70,000 strong, with more coming every day. About two-thirds of this group live in the Denver area -- and since these people all have to eat, several authentic, honest-to-Lenin Russian restaurants have popped up around town in the past couple of years.

Restaurant Festival (9250 East Hampden Avenue), which opened in 2000, showcases Russian, Georgian and Ukrainian food. The dinner menu is large (as is the dining room), listing pelmeni, vareniki dumplings, real Western Russian pirozhki stuffed with spiced meat or potatoes, both black and red caviar, and even dolma (grape leaves stuffed with ground beef), for those looking for more Mediterranean flavors. Festival's lunch menu is smaller but includes a $5.99 special complete with entree, soup and salad.

California Bakery is located in the Russian Plaza at Leetsdale and Oneida, just two doors down from Astoria Restaurant (see review, page 61). But don't let the name fool you: There isn't one ounce of West Coast in this place. Among its offerings are another version of pirozhki (they might have another name at California Bakery, but I couldn't get it out of the counterman). While your garden-variety piro is an oval of puffed sweet dough about the size of a fist and stuffed with spiced meat or potato and onions, these are more like torpedos -- as long as sub rolls, sweet and soft, and crammed with the best creamed-potato-and-onion mix I've ever tasted. Even better: They're just 99 cents each. Dollar menu be damned -- I ain't never setting foot in another McDonald's.

California Bakery also does cookies, heavy breads, pastries, strange little Russian cakes with marzipan mushrooms on top, tiramisu and a triple-decked puff pastry layered with what the counterman claims is zabaglione but tastes more like an incredible sherry-free, yolk-thickened French sabayon. Frankly, I don't care what the bakery calls this confection, as long as they keep making it and always have one on hand when I come looking. Otherwise, there might be trouble...

A few blocks away, the Russia House (1180 Leetsdale Drive) -- which was once called something in Cyrillic with "International Restaurant" tagged on the end -- has recently installed bright new English signs and colorful awnings. I'm not sure what went on here previous to the facelift, but the sixty-seat nightclub/restaurant now seems to be positioning itself to expand its market with lunch and dinner specials, live music and spicy Eastern Russian fare.

Downtown, the four-month-old Russian Palace (1800 Glenarm Place) does "a little bit of everything," according to general manager Lila Orbidan. The menu at the Palace is Continental but focuses on traditional high-end dishes and authentic Russian foods cooked by guys who know. Owner George Zadikyn came to Denver from Russia with the dream of opening a classy joint in a location that would attract customers who wouldn't balk at a dress code (business casual -- no jeans, no cowboy hats, says Orbidan) and might be interested in his idea of upscale Eastern European cuisine. The downstairs space, which was formerly the home of Vartan's Jazz Club, seats 250 and has a full bar featuring Russian beers and wines and a good selection of vodkas.

On March 7 and 8, the Palace will be celebrating Women's Day -- a Russian holiday that's sort of Valentine's Day and Mother's Day rolled into one -- with Gypsy Spirit, a band that fans of Russian-style gypsy love songs the world over will recognize, Orbidan assures me. A dinner/concert package is $55 on Friday, $65 on Saturday; that gets you the show and a six-course dinner that includes red caviar and all the wine and vodka you can drink. For any of you guys who messed up on Valentine's Day, this might be a good way to make amends. If the gypsy love songs don't get you off the hook, that bottomless vodka glass just might do the trick.

And while at the start of this year the Little Russian Cafe finally rolled up its carpets after two decades in Larimer Square, owner Eugene Valershteyn's Russian Cafe (2500 East Orchard Road, Littleton) is still going strong, serving the simple peasant fare that he grew up with - along with an impressive spread of flavored artisan vodkas.

The Little Russian's space at 1424 Larimer Street was snapped up by Eric Roeder, formerly of Micole and without a kitchen for nearly a year now. He'll be opening an as-yet-unnamed bistro there as early as April, after going to France to do some "research" in the bistros of Paris and at Alain Ducasse's extravagant Louis the XIV-style restaurant called, simply, Ducasse.

When I caught Roeder on the phone, I managed to squeeze out a few other details. First, the place will be a true bistro, serving classic French street food. "Cassoulet, steak frites, all that good stuff," Roeder explains. The space will reflect that same aesthetic, with mosaic tile floors, a zinc bar top and a small patio that will expand capacity to almost a hundred seats. The bistro will serve both lunch and dinner, and Roeder promises he'll be in the kitchen every night, working right alongside his old Micole crew. Steven Fling will be doing pastry, and on board as sous chef is Griff Sickendick -- who may have the most unfortunate name in all of recorded history.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan