The eternal Russian

We were in the mood for "something different," that is, something that wasn't pasta, wasn't pesto, not new, not American--something, perhaps, that wasn't even grilled. We wanted to taste something that was not a fresh idea. The solution, it seemed, was Russian food. There is, as yet, no "new" Russian cuisine. There is only Russian cuisine as it was, is now, and presumably ever shall be, and in Dallas the only place to get it is the Russian Room, the upstairs, upscale spinoff of Deli News on the backside of the Crescent.

We assumed this was the valet, the sturdy guy scowling toward the car, but he gave us no indication. Nyet. Nothing like, for instance, a greeting. He could have been an escaped dinner guest, though as we found out, it's not that easy. He took the keys and pulled the car into a parking space right by where we were standing and left us to find the restaurant. On the right, a banquet room filled with tables, a lively wedding party, and a band. On the left, the stack of spare chairs and a view of the darkened deli. We took the stairs in the middle, an inauspicious entry to the premier Russian dining establishment in Dallas. But undeniably different. No hand-kissing here.

The restaurant was right at the top of the stairs, where we were greeted by a frenetic young man who offered to seat us right there where we were standing. We declined to sit so near the entrance. "There won't be anyone else coming in," he urged, with gloomy Russian confidence. Nevertheless, we insisted on actually entering the room, which is decorated rather violently with paintings of Russian fairy tales, in the style of traditional Russian lacquer work. So the flustered, fluttering waiter led us past a table already spread with platters of food to another at the back of the stairs and then asked if he could "get started" on some cocktails for us. Ominous wording, we thought. But what's a diner to do? We ordered wine, realizing we should have wanted vodka, and were abandoned with a basket of bagels, sliced on the meat slicer downstairs in the deli, we imagined. And imagination was a necessary component of our dinner at the Russian Room because food was not, for a long time. It turns out that we had chosen an unfortunate evening for our expedition to exotica--the wedding below, which we could watch from our perch near the stairs, had not only eaten all the caviar in the house, but was evidently using all the waitstaff as well, meaning there was a lot of frantic trotting by the guys in black and white and a Russian winter-long wait for us. Before we'd finished our meal, we'd spent a long time watching the flower girl and the mother of the bride dance and sympathized from afar with a lonely tuxedoed wedding guest, who periodically defected from the festivities to comfort himself at the bar in the restaurant, face-to-face with our waiter, who was kvetching about his overload.

Still, once the food came we ceased to be plaintiffs and became diners again. Even without caviar, the starters were good. The "zakuska" platter brought us a range of ice cream-scooped mounds, each a different, drab-looking but delicious dip, salad, or spread: Chopped roasted eggplant, chilled and mixed with mayonnaise and paprika, a rosy relish that reminds you of Middle Eastern concoctions; marinated mushrooms minced tiny and bound with cream; tiny bits of chicken mixed with soft peas and potatoes. Unfortunately for our bagel-weary jaws, all these begged to be piled on a bit of bread.

Main courses were magnificent, big plates of food, ungarnished and beautifully simple. Chicken Kiev, the epitome of fancy food when I was a child--who can forget that first spurt of butter?--and since then relegated, like chicken cordon bleu, to the second tier of hotel haute, a tired idea, executed by rote, is here raised to its remembered glory. The chicken breast was delicate and flavorful, its greaseless crumb coating fried to a shell as thin and strong as an egg's, its dill-scented butter filling infusing the meat. Beef Stroganoff, another cliched dish, now synonymous with the fifties chafing dish, is a marvelous thing at the Russian Room, the cream-clad beef tender and rosy. Lamb chops were fragrant and tender; roasted potatoes were both crusty and soft.

Toward the end of the meal, as the wedding guests left and the flower girl was dancing alone, the service and the scene upstairs picked up its pace. Of course, things always seem better when you're sated. The gloomy wedding guest was gone for good. Waiters unseen till now began drifting in, bowties askew, and we were plied with offers of dessert and after-dinner drinks. Ice-encased bottles were delivered to the group of Russian regulars who descended on the pre-set table, creating a cloud of blue cigarette smoke and immediately raising the noise level of the room above its previous gloom.

We knew we should have ordered vodka.

--Mary Brown Malouf

The Russian Room, 500 Crescent Court, Maple & Cedar Springs, (214) 922-3333. Open for dinner Tuesday-Thursday 6 p.m.-11 p.m., Friday-Saturday 6 p.m.-midnight.

Russian Room:

Zakuska Platter

Lamb Chops

Chicken Kiev

Beef Stroganoff


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