Monday, January 09, 2006

Celebrity Infusion New York City Entry #54

Those passionate about cuisine sometimes must be reminded that restaurants serve many purposes. A fine evening can be had at an establishment where the food is not the purpose of dining.

I was reminded of this truth at a meal I shared with some friends at Russian Samovar, the Theater District restaurant at which (I'm told) the dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov and the late poet Joseph Brodsky have been investors. With the demise of the legendary Russian Tearoom, Russian Samovar (and FireBird) are what is left of Russian high cuisine in Manhattan. (Brooklyn is a very different, and more complex, story). Russian Samovar is a restaurant favored by Russian expatriates and well as American celebrities (Laurie Anderson, Cindy Lauper, Susan Sontag, Anna Kournikova, and Liza Minnelli - I wish I were at THAT party!).

My party included two Russian expatriates, both long-time American residents, and, even if the food was not glorious, the conversation was. And thanks to my hosts, the service was attentive. Russian Samovar is a room of Russian excess. The restaurants on Curry Row have nothing on the Samovar. The hanging lamps, red fabric with black fringe, provided a certain Russian je ne sais quoi. The restaurant is done in shades of red, white, gold, and black: Russian to the core. The walls are filled with sundry photographs and artwork that together prove to be a weirdly inspired marriage of Russian life and celebrity culture. Add to this the entertainment - the stylings of Russian pianist, Alexander Izbitzer, and one finds a temple of consumption, but one light years from Le Bernardin around the corner.

Russian Samovar fashions their own vodka. Perhaps they don't rely on a bathtub in the basement, but the infusions are home-made. Among the choices are Tarragon, Garlic, Coriander, and Cranberry Vodka (the most popular). At the suggestion of a companion I ordered Horseradish Vodka, a peasant favorite. This libation was the high point of the evening, pungent while retaining the smooth fire of this fine liquor.

As an appetizer spread, we ordered the Royal Baltic Fish Platter with Blini. The tray included salmon caviar, a small-egg sturgeon caviar, two types of marinated herring, smoked sturgeon and salmon. The herring was particularly enjoyable, the smoked salmon too thickly cut, but the blini, sturgeon and caviar perfectly presentable and satisfying (the vodka helped). The eggplant caviar that we ordered was smoky and pungent, even if this concoction is some distance from Caspian roe.

My beef stroganoff was disappointing. Great stroganoff depends on tender filet; my beef was dry and overcooked - a tough cut for a tender dish. The noodles, sour cream, and mushrooms were as proffered, but with a second-class filet, it didn't merit much thought. More time to talk.

For dessert we shared Natasha's apple cream cheese pie (apples and cinnamon over cream cheese, topped with almonds with a drizzled raspberry sauce). I was intrigued to learn that for many Russian men the name Natasha conjures images of a prostitute, but perhaps we shouldn't be too Freudian about pastries. Oh ho. As it was, the pie was sweet and tart; lush, if not carnal.

Had I been dining alone, my list of complaints might have been heavy and sad. However, this evening deserves no rough critique. Should the stars (Ms. Lauper and Ms. Minnelli?) align, I might return to quaff garlic vodka with a twinkling starlet.

Russian Samovar
256 W. 52nd Street (at 8th Avenue)
Manhattan (Theater District)

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