Cafe Society

From Russia, With Love

Page 2 of 3

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.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan