"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.
There's something exciting and cosmopolitan about having a Russian restaurant and grocery in town, even though Russian cuisine is generally perceived to be heavy, fattening, and bland -- or worse. A friend who recently returned from a trip to Moscow shuddered at the memory of the meals she encountered: "stingy breakfasts, awful soups, meats in aspic, too much damn cabbage."
But Moscow Nights serves an interesting mix of tasty Ukrainian, Persian, Greek, and Middle Eastern dishes, including the plate of skewered, grilled meat that Americans know as shish kabob but is called shashlik in Russia or basturma mtsvadi in the Republic of Georgia. It's "shish kabob" on the Moscow Nights menu too, served here with french fries, rice, or a good old all-American baked potato wrapped in silvery foil.
The menu, which isn't extensive, has more of a United Nations theme than a strictly Russian one, although the most popular culinary imports from Tolstoy's homeland, such as borscht, blintzes, and stroganoff, are featured. The borscht ($3.50) has bits of lemony, fresh coriander but no traditional potatoes, at least in the bowl I devoured. There was plenty of firm, chopped cabbage, onion, and carrots and, supposedly, some red meat, in this version of the Ukrainian beet soup, served up with a somewhat stingy teaspoon of sour cream. In Please To the Table: The Russian Cookbook, authors Anya von Bremzen and John Welchman write, "A proper borscht should include as many as 20 ingredients and ought to be thick enough for a spoon to stand up in it." At Moscow Nights, it's a thinner, more brothy borscht meant to be eaten as an aperitif before the meal, rather than as a meal.
The cousin of the tiny Russian buckwheat pancake known as blini (traditionally eaten with caviar) is the filled, fried crêpe known as blinchiki in Russia and as a "blintz" here, usually filled with sweet cream cheese and dappled with canned cherry sauce. At Moscow Nights, the varieties change, but the regulars include a savory cheese version, one stuffed with ground beef, another with mashed potatoes, and yet a fourth variation stuffed with sweet cherry sauce. I ordered a plate of three ($3.95) to eat with my soup: cheese, meat, and potato, all lightly browned in a sauté pan, steaming hot, and a shade salty, the better to down with a slug of vodka.
Dinner entrées are served with Israeli seasoned salad, which turned out to be a plate of chopped iceberg lettuce, chunks of cucumber, chopped tomato, and a sprinkling of fresh dill. There's a little bowl of vinaigrette dressing served with it that looked and tasted like the bottled Italian variety, but who was I to quibble? I had decided against the more exotic possibilities, such as the Jerusalem Eggplant Salad ($3.95) with walnuts, spices, and mayonnaise; a Greek salad ($5.95) with feta cheese and, surprisingly, salami; or the Moscow Nights Special ($4.95), a concoction of pickled cabbage, beets, potatoes, onion, and kidney beans.
By the time we had ordered dinner, the server had turned on the sound system and a Russian pop star, clearly the Tom Jones of Moscow, was wailing to a disco beat. The tune was bouncy, but the lyrics were impenetrable to us non-Russians.
"He is singing about the price of fame," explained our server. "On the outside he is rich and famous; on the inside he is ordinary, like you or I."
"Speak for yourself," I told him, looking down at my dinner plate, a pile of real mashed potatoes and an ordinary glob of shredded mashed meat: Ukrainian beef stroganoff ($12.95).
It wasn't exactly what I expected, having grown up -- like most Americans -- thinking of "stroganoff" as a dish of seared, cubed meat served in a sauce of butter, mushrooms, cream, and spices. The sauceless Ukrainian version at Moscow Nights tasted fair and utterly bland but looked just like my mother's leftover pot roast. The mashed potatoes, sprinkled with dill, were at least more interesting-looking, tinted a bright yellow from some spice. Turmeric? Saffron? I asked the server, who shrugged: "It is a secret powder we get from Russia."
Later, I called the restaurant to ask the same question, and Vladimir took the phone into the kitchen but sighed: "The label is in Russian. I don't read Russian."
The chicken Kiev ($14.95) my dining companion ordered also came with a big portion of the yellow mashed potatoes, at his request, and he proclaimed them "delicious."
I had always assumed that chicken Kiev, a breaded chicken cutlet, was a strictly American invention, like any kind of fried chicken. But in Please to the Table, the writers explain that the dish, a butter-stuffed boned chicken breast, probably started out as a classic French recipe that got a Russian spin.
At Moscow Nights, the chicken breast has been ground before being mixed with butter and chives, rolled in coarse bread crumbs and deep-fried, so the exterior is crusty and hot, the chicken inside tender and buttery. It's very, very good. There's also a Moscow-style spring chicken ($15.95), served pressed and fried on the menu, as well as grilled shrimp in sour cream sauce and a couple of grilled seafood choices. Those with bigger appetites can add a side dish of Siberian steamed dumplings ($7.95) stuffed with ground meat and served with butter, vinegar, and sour cream.
We decided to sacrifice the dumplings for dessert, which are either made in the restaurant, said the server, "or brought from a Russian bakery in New York." He raved about something called an Odessa Cake, which arrived as a wedge of iced layer cake, each layer a different cake flavor, separated by either a swath of sugary buttercream frosting or a layer of cherry-flavor gelatin. It was festive-looking but dull-tasting. The intensely strong coffee more than made up for the blandness of the dessert.
Moscow Nights also serves lunch in the Kansas daylight, but be warned: That disco ball looks pretty sad and listless in the noonday sun.
Contact Charles Ferruzza at 816-218-6925 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Moscow Nights4515 W. 90th St., Prairie Village, Kan.
Hours: 11 a.m. to midnight daily
FOOD: Two Stars
SERVICE: Three Stars
ATMOSPHERE: Three Stars
OVERALL: Three Stars