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.

There's a dance floor -- the plastic, portable variety made to look like hardwood when you lay it over the slightly shabby carpeting -- but no one's dancing. And right beside the crowded bar at the back of the windowless, bunkerish space is a stage decked out in gold bunting, rope lights, black keyboard stands and pre-amp racks that looks like it's waiting for the imminent return of the world's worst Bee Gees cover band. In the corner nearest the kitchen door, four middle-aged men sit playing cards and backgammon; the sharp clatter of the dice, the slap of aces on the tabletop and their muttered cursing play in counterpoint to the smooth drawl of Russian satellite news and the screeching of foreign cartoons on the TV above the bar. As near as I can tell, these men are part of the decor. I've visited Astoria three times, at assorted hours of the day and night, and all three times, they were there, always in the same seats, always at the same games, and always welcoming in a gruff, Slavic kind of way -- nodding their heads at me, then barking words toward the kitchen that I didn't understand but imagined went something like, "Sergey! Get out here! That weird American guy is back again."

You don't need to speak Russian to enjoy Astoria, though. The menus are in English, and the servers (at least the only two I've seen there) speak it well enough to walk you around any potential cultural pitfalls. You won't accidentally order a massage from the dishwasher's grandmother, and if you have a question about anything (except where the bathrooms are -- I was never able to figure that out), odds are they'll be able to answer it.

I'd been looking forward to trying Astoria's pelmeni -- appetizer dumplings stuffed with spiced meat that I'd first encountered at a Russian deli in Buffalo, then again under a different name at an Afghan restaurant in Albuquerque. Sadly, the kitchen was out of them on my first visit (and every subsequent one, too). So I went with the solyanka, which tasted a little like a Jewish grandmother's best chicken soup if, after making the broth, said Jewish grandmother then filled the pot with carrots, cubed pickles and seven different kinds of preserved meats, including smoked beef, tongue, little rounds of pork sausage that floated around on the surface like cut-up hot dogs, and a few others I was never able to identify. The spicy soup was filling (only one size is offered, and I think the Russian word for it translates roughly to "vat") and tasty enough on its own, but it also came with two single-serving cups of sour cream that were meant to be stirred in when the soup was hot. There are two ways to do this: One, smear a small amount of sour cream on the inside of the bowl and take a little with each spoonful as the rest melts slowly into the soup; or two, spoon both portions into the middle of the hot broth and eat fast before the sour cream breaks and fills your bowl with little white curds, then immediately call your cardiologist to schedule a cholesterol test.

I, of course, chose the latter method. I also stole a few forkfuls of my wife's potato salad. Flavor-wise, it was as non-threatening as anything Ward and June Cleaver might have served at a backyard picnic while the transistor radio crackled with reports of Sputnik, and was surprising only in that peas had been stirred into the mix. Along with some chunks of roast beef and dark-meat chicken. Oh, and peppers, too.

We also washed down red Russian caviar on slightly damp blini with tall pilsner glasses of sweet Baltika 3 beer (1 and 2 are lights, 3 is a lager, 4 is a dark beer; the numbers rise as high as 9) and hearty four-ounce pours of Smirnoff. The vodka arrived at the table in tiny crystal decanters, along with the server's offer to provide all manner of chasers. My advice: Refuse them. Russians are under the impression that Americans can't drink, but that's probably because most of them have never met my wife. After Laura's repeated insistence that she needed no orange juice, water or anything else to wash down the hard stuff, and after she knocked back two good ounces in one long swallow without gasp or grimace, our service improved measurably, and the waitress became much more warm and hospitable.

To Laura, anyway. The wife and the waitress bonded in broken English while making fun of me for not drinking the same way and instead adding Smirnoff depth charges to my beer like a pussy. Trust me -- there's nothing quite so ego-deflating as being made fun of by two women at the same time in two different languages.

That first night, we had a heavy stroganoff that was darker and thicker than its American incarnation, made with less cream and no mushrooms. The kitchen ladled it generously over whipped potatoes cut with cold knobs of butter that pooled in every nook as it melted. We also shared a whole chicken that had been hacked into thirds with the skin on, rubbed with butter, salt, pepper and herbs, then broiled until it was pick-off-the-bone tender. The bird (called tabaka on the menu) arrived propped on another generous mound of mashed 'taters rich with butter and cream. Both plates (actually, all Astoria plates that I saw) featured a standardized sideboard of one tomato wedge, two long slices of cold cucumber, some spears of baby corn, and chilled peas.

As a matter of fact, most of Astoria's vegetables were cold, to balance the warm meats in the best Eastern European tradition, and whatever wasn't cold came pickled, salted or cured. Or all three. And platters of pickled Russian vegetables weren't just offered, but suggested in bold letters at the bottom of the menu -- which also warned customers not to drink vodka without them.

I stopped back at lunchtime for the lamb shish kabob karski that had been unavailable at dinner. Rather than the skewer of lamb cubes and mysterious spices that I expected, I got a rack of lamb hot off the grill, the fat blackened and crisp, the meat warm, pink and perfect. Alongside the lamb were the usual suspects: whipped potatoes and their comrades, cucumbers and peas. Other than a red sweet-and-sour pepper sauce that was a cross between a fantastic Swedish red-currant glaze and a sweet Indian curry, this dish could have easily been on the cover of a 1957 Gourmet magazine. I know this because I have a few hardbound collections of Gourmet's best recipes, and in the '50s, rack of lamb was all the rage.

Which just tells me that at the height of our joint paranoia -- when fathers in both countries were spending their weekends digging bomb shelters and our leaders were trying to comfort us with phrases like "mutually assured destruction" -- on our dinner tables at night were the same things: meat, potatoes, peas and beer. We were never that different to begin with. And other than the threat of a Bee Gees cover band, no one has anything to fear at Astoria Restaurant, either.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan