"We are booked, booked!" yelled the heavily accented voice at the other end of the phone when I called on a Saturday morning to make a reservation for that night. "We are full, full!"
It may seem unlikely that this little restaurant, tucked into the corner of a French provincial-style office building in Prairie Village, could be the hottest scene in town, but on weekend nights, it really is "booked, booked!" and "full, full!" But is it the chicken Kiev and beef liver kabobs or the live entertainment that draws the crowds?
"We have real, professional Russian musicians," said Vladimir, the Israeli co-owner of the 6-week-old restaurant. (Vladimir does not care to share his last name; it's simply Vladimir.)
On Fridays and Saturday nights, the musicians begin to play, the tables are moved off the small wooden dance floor, and directly above it, a mirrored disco ball spins while a color wheel mounted on the ceiling spotlights it with splashes of primary colors. Suddenly the rather formal dining room, all mirrors and dramatic swags of taffeta draperies, goes from Moscow Nights to Boogie Nights.
On weeknights, the ambience is much more sedate and the focus is strictly on the food and the formal service. Moscow Nights bills itself as a "Russian and European restaurant," and at first glance, it seems like an old-fashioned "continental" restaurant of the 1950s and '60s, with lots of glitz. There are big, bright chandeliers hanging from the ceiling's dropped acoustical tiles, the woodwork is painted a glossy mauve, and the windows are swathed in folds of creamy chiffon and tasseled burgundy taffeta. There are mirrors, sconces, and tables draped in crisp white linens, and the formal place settings are of heavy white china.
It's all pretty snazzy, as though it's Prairie Village's answer to New York City's legendary Russian Tea Room (before its recent and wildly expensive renovation), complete with chilled caviar, salted herring, and crusty bread from a New York bakery. But the 74-year-old Russian Tea Room has always offered something that's, surprisingly, not on the Moscow Night menu: real Russian vodka.
There is Swedish vodka and Finnish vodka, which can be sipped along with a zakuski, or appetizer, such as salted herring with baby potatoes ($4.95); salty, fresh feta cheese ($5.95); or a plate of smoked cold cuts ($6.95). And there's a Russian-sounding vodka that's made in Connecticut. But no Russian vodka. "I'm sorry," apologized the server. "It's difficult to import it to Kansas. We are working on getting it."
Vladimir, who said he also owns a restaurant in Brooklyn, imports less potent Russian fare to the restaurant, including the bread and desserts from a Russian bakery. He also runs a tiny Russian market, A Taste of Russia (located a couple of miles away in downtown Overland Park), with his in-laws, Alex and Anna Kucherovsky. The Kucherovskys are from Kiev, not Moscow, and are fixtures in the Taste of Russia shop. The shop really looks like an Eastern European food market, with its open baskets of nuts, cans of tinned fish, blue plastic bottles of Russian soda water, a single hanging salami, Russian newspapers and videos, and one refrigerator case filled with boxed, decorated cakes from a Brooklyn bakery, another with frozen blintzes from New Jersey. One of the cakes boasted a little plastic bodybuilder heaving a plastic barbell and the Russian word for "circus" spelled out in neon-blue icing.