Page 2 of 3
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).