Cafe Society

From Russia, With Love

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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