Restaurant Tours: Soviet emigres bring new life to the Loop | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Restaurant Tours: Soviet emigres bring new life to the Loop 

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Soviet cuisine, like the ex-nation itself, is influenced by a diverse blend of traditions and cultures. At the Russian Tea Cafe, which opened around the corner from Orchestra Hall in late September, the extensive menu travels from familiar favorites--stroganoff, shashliki, and blinis with caviar and sour cream--to Russian Jewish offerings and modern specialties from Uzbekistan, Georgia, and Ukraine. It's a delicious voyage.

Soviet cuisines, despite their variety, do share the tradition of daily tea drinking, and home entertaining always includes zakuska, tapaslike hors d'ouevres served with vodka. The cafe's menu recommends Stolichnaya, and gives hilariously detailed seven-step instructions on how to drink it. (Step four: "Exhale loudly, producing a sound just short of a full whistle. Smell your slice of black bread. . . . Some people smell their sleeves, but this is optional.")

The Russian Tea Cafe's selection of zakuska is enormous. The best, by far, is the Guriev blini ($18.95), three large, warm crepes drenched in melted butter, topped with a small dollop of delicate, reddish gold Caspian salmon caviar, and served with thick sour cream. How good is it? Just like in that restaurant scene in When Harry Met Sally, the lady at the next table said she'd have whatever I was having. Well worth the outrageous $18.95 and the ticket to cholesterol hell. Another dish, the omelette a la Russe ($9.95), which is on the luncheon menu, also includes salmon roe and sour cream, but doesn't taste as good because there are too many other ingredients.

The rest of the zakuska are reasonably priced. They are: samsa ($5.50), delicious baked triangle pastries similar to Indian samosas, filled with chopped chicken and onions and lightly spiced with cumin and marjoram; a tiny roast quail delicately sweetened by dried cherries ($7), with carrot salad, sauteed eggplant, mushrooms, and roast potatoes; and a fine rendition of classic cabbage rolls ($6), stuffed with chopped chicken and beets, with carrot salad, sauteed onions, and wild rice in a light fresh tomato sauce. Many of the appetizers are vegetarian: mild, sweet farmer-cheese-filled blintzes ($6) with raspberry sauce; wonderfully rich, lightly breaded Azerbaijani-style jumbo mushroom caps ($6), stuffed with sauteed mushrooms, spinach, onions, and feta and Havarti cheese; zesty sauteed eggplant ($4.50), sprinkled with garlic and homemade tomato paste; and savory warm chick-pea and onion stew ($4), with tomatoes, cumin, coriander, and cinnamon. Avoid the dull lobio ($4), a Georgian salad of kidney beans, and the equally bland Tashkent carrot salad ($4), both of which come as sides with many of the other dishes. The Ukrainian potato dumplings called vareniki ($6) look and taste like pot stickers stuffed with mashed potatoes--evidently an acquired taste.

You can compose your meal entirely of zakuska, but only if you have the will to resist some powerfully tempting entrees. Don't worry about nodding off in your expensive symphony seats after a heavy meal. Portions, while adequate, are never overwhelming. Aside from the blini/crepes, most dishes are nouvelle takes on old heavyweights. Crisp, brown quail ($17 for one/$21 for two) is filled with a flavorful blend of ground chicken, mushrooms, and onions, and comes with a lightly fruity pomegranate sauce, stuffed mushrooms, marinated beets, sauteed chicken livers, and carrot salad. The traditional pan-roasted breast of mallard duck a la Russe ($17), with pomegranate-cherry sauce, is served a very au courant rare, with baked apple, stuffed mushrooms, prunes poached in brandy, marinated beets, and sauteed eggplant. Uzbek lamb kebab ($15), aka shish kebab or shashliki, consists of chunks of juicy and well-seasoned, if slightly tough, lamb, marinated, charcoal grilled, and served on a bed of steamed rice with the bean and carrot salads, sliced onions, and a subtle tomato sauce. The chicken Kiev ($11) should be 86ed. I've had better frozen.

The most ethnic dessert choice is an excellent, tangy apricot plum strudel ($4.60) dotted with walnuts and raisins. But try the miniature bombe ($4.50), layers of raspberry sherbet and chocolate ice cream, covered with a chocolate shell and surrounded by raspberry sauce. Chocolate suicide cake ($5) is either just right or too rich, depending on your degree of chocoholism. Cappuccino ($2.70)--decaf is available--comes in a glass, more like a latte. Or opt for a glass of fragrant Russian tea ($2.50) flavored with raspberries and currants.

From the deep red decor and samovars to the birch woodwork and background music, the cafe, like its owners, Klara and Sergey Muchnik, is authentically Russian and absolutely charming. The Muchniks are Jews who left Uzbekistan, in central Asia, less than three years ago. Mrs. Muchnik, who had been a caterer, worked as a cashier in a deli while learning English. She is now the cafe's executive chef. Her husband, a doctor, practices at the Hektoen Institute. Their son Vadim is a co-owner of the restaurant. Although they were told that there was no dinner business in the Loop, these imports from Tashkent have discovered that people who enjoy classical music, theater, and foreign films have educated taste buds: dinner reservations are at a premium.

The Russian Tea Cafe, 63 E. Adams, is open 11 AM to 4 PM Monday, 11 AM to 11 PM Tuesday through Thursday, 11 AM to midnight Friday, noon to midnight Saturday, and 1 PM to 9 PM Sunday (dinner is served all day Sunday). Reservations are accepted for dinner only. For more information call 360-0000.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.

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