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Friday, December 22, 2006

The Russian Tea Room is Back, and Guess What?

It still sucks.

Some time ago, La Russophobe pointed out that Russian cuisine is a microcosm of Russia itself -- that is, it's a spectacular failure. Now, the New York Times reports that the defunct Russian Tea Room, most famous "Russian" restaurant in the world (and, dollar for dollar, one of the worst gustatory atrocities in world history) has returned, and it's as bad as ever. Perhaps aware of our criticism, it seems that the Tea Room's new strategy includes the theory that the less Russian it is, the better. But apparently, it's still too much. The reviewer sums up his impressions as follows: "In terms of food and all else, the Russian Tea Room doesn’t add up neatly or quite make sense. Maybe that’s its way of paying homage to the motherland."

It’s a safe bet that many visitors to the reborn Russian Tea Room won’t realize that it still serves chicken Kiev and beef stroganoff, or at least interpretations thereof.

These dishes aren’t mentioned in the clear print on the dinner menu’s first three pages, which cover appetizers and entrees and seem to exhaust the restaurant’s savory offerings. They aren’t mentioned on any kind of specials card.

No, they’re relegated to a typographical Siberia: an italicized blur on the mostly blank fourth page of the menu, where diners are also told of holidays on which the restaurant will be open.

“We are delighted to prepare historical Tea Room favorites, including chicken Kiev and beef stroganoff, on request,” reads the blur, which of course conveys the opposite message. If the Tea Room czars are so chirpily delighted, why not put the Kiev where people can find it?

That’s easy: because a torpedo of breaded chicken with a butter-filled cavity isn’t really what Gary Robins, a seriously gifted chef, wants to cook. Mr. Robins, whose new American cuisine at the Biltmore Room won him widespread praise, has a deservedly grander and less fry-happy sense of self.

His surprising recruitment to revive this wheezing institution has produced an engrossing tug-of-war: his culinary internationalism and contemporary sophistication versus the institution’s stodgy traditions and geographically constrained name; tataki of seared hamachi, which he sneaks onto the appetizer list, versus borscht, which he also dutifully includes there.

Some dishes seem not to have any firmer tether to Russia than the restaurant’s ersatz Chagall and Kandinsky paintings and golden firebirds have to conventional elegance. Other dishes blur the boundaries between Russia, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and even the Far East.

By Mr. Robins’s reckoning, poaching Maine lobster in sour cream tugs it as close to Red Square as it needs to be, permitting him to round out the plate with pickled papaya and cauliflower flan. Putting dumplings made with tvorog, a Russian farmer’s cheese, next to slices of seared venison loin allows him to dust the meat with cocoa, a fate it doesn’t routinely meet in Moscow.

Make a concession, take a liberty — that’s how he handles his ethnic compass. It’s a smart approach, accommodating an impulse simply to do what feels right and yielding some very appealing dishes.

As best I can tell, goose breast carpaccio isn’t all the rage in St. Petersburg, but maybe it should be. Silky leaves of meat were sprinkled with toasted pistachio and crowned with baby arugula, tiny cubes of sour-cherry jelly and like-sized cubes of creamy foie gras.

If beef and noodles are all that’s necessary to claim a stroganoff, Mr. Robins satisfied the criteria while otherwise doing as he pleased. The beef was braised short rib, while the noodles were festooned with chanterelle and hen-of-the-woods mushrooms. For the rich, zingy sauce that completed this terrific dish, he mixed whipped cream, sour cream, horseradish and whole grain mustard.

Adding sour cream or cabbage is one of his recurring strategies, as is pickling an ingredient. Slices of pork tenderloin were complemented by a version of stuffed cabbage — steamed and filled with ground pork shoulder and foie gras — that was out of this world. And the pickled cabbage beside a beautifully roasted fillet of turbot was a kraut to end all krauts, studded with pastrami and suffused with butter and olive oil.

Sumptuous appetizer crepes already had a Russian name — blinchiki — and thus a Russian pedigree, so Mr. Robins was free to stuff them with goat cheese, duck confit and yet more chanterelles. He didn’t toy around too much with the borscht, which had a brilliant ruby color and brimmed with fresh dill. And the potato pancakes with a fluffy lunchtime omelet were faithfully rendered and wholly on target, hitting that crunchy-oily bull’s-eye.

More than a few dishes weren’t so successful. Tea-smoked sturgeon had an acrid aftertaste. The chicken Kiev, unexpectedly straightforward, did a rubbery impersonation of airline food, and I mean coach. There are nearly a dozen kinds of caviar — foreign, domestic, wild, farmed — and several of the ones I tried had an excessively pasty texture, lacking any bouncy pop.

The kitchen was also bedeviled by inconsistency. Buckwheat blini that were golden and fluffy one visit were charred and leaden the next.

But this restaurant’s real shortcoming is its service, unforgivably poor in the context of dinner entrees that frequently exceed $40, appetizers that infrequently fall below $18 and 30-gram servings of caviar that cost as much as $300.

Outdated menus with erroneous information were put on the table. Drinks and food were ludicrously slow to arrive. Servers responded dismissively to complaints, one of them telling us that we shouldn’t bother him with questions about a fugitive bottle of wine. It was, he shrugged, the sommelier’s problem.

And what a problem. Although we had ordered a 1998 French Burgundy for $84, we got a 2001. We flagged the discrepancy, and for the next 15 minutes, as we ate our appetizers and thirsted for pinot noir, both the wine and sommelier were on the lam. When he showed up, he presented us with a similar 1998 — the listed one was unavailable — for $20 more. He paused, seemingly waiting for us to agree to spend that.

Then, in the manner of a car salesman, he said: “I’ll make you a deal. We’ll call it an even $90.”

Could he throw in cruise control? A leather interior?

He later dropped the price to $84, the right end to a wrong situation that typified the restaurant’s clumsiness.

Around since 1926, the Russian Tea Room has been teetering like an outmoded regime for more than a decade, its ownership repeatedly changing, its doors closing for years on end. Its last incarnation, which shut down in 2002, was rated satisfactory by William Grimes in The New York Times in 1999.

This incarnation, owned by Gerald Lieblich, opened nearly two months ago, and it looks like a vivid memory made real. Velvet ropes point you to a revolving glass door, which in turn leads you to the Santa-red booths and spruce-green walls of the ground-floor dining room, where every day is Christmas. (An upstairs dining room — the one with the translucent bear — remains under wraps.)

And at times the experience indeed feels like a gift. The desserts fulfill their sweet obligations, though apart from a pair of blintzes, they’re geographically unbound. That was truest of the best of them, a buttermilk panna cotta with lingonberries and hazelnuts.

To another chef’s stroganoff, it might be an eccentric coda. To Mr. Robins’s, it’s as logical a next course as any other. In terms of food and all else, the Russian Tea Room doesn’t add up neatly or quite make sense. Maybe that’s its way of paying homage to the motherland.

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