Sometimes You Eat the Bear

Russian Bear Restaurant
939 Clement (at 11th Avenue). Open daily except Mondays from noon to 2 a.m. Brunch on weekends is served noon to 3 p.m. Credit cards accepted; the restaurant is wheelchair accessible. Call 752-8197.

Martha and TJ ganged up on me. Martha's grandparents were Russian, TJ's grandma was (close enough) Polish. "I miss my grandmother's cooking," said Martha. "You've got to find us a Russian restaurant."

"I don't like rush in restaurants. I like a leisurely meal." (A silence.) "I don't like Russian food."

"I thought you were Russian on your mother's side," said TJ.
"I'm not on my mother's side, I'm agin' it. Wretched cooks, all of 'em."
"You don't like borscht?" Martha asked.

"Yick! I hate beets. My mom's borscht came from a Manischevitz bottle, anyway. I mean, their borscht, not their booze."

"You like beef stroganoff," nagged TJ. "Chicken Kiev, you don't like chicken Kiev?" noodged Martha.

"Stroganoff is French -- invented by Antoine Careme when he was chef to one of the czars. For all I know, chicken Kiev is French, too. All good Russian food is French, except for caviar. 'White Russian' emigre dishes were once a big fad in Paris; all the best chefs changed them completely. But real Russian food -- it's Mom's macaroni with cottage cheese. It's Aunt Irma's pot roast, so heavy it'd sink a ship, and the passengers would all fall over bored."

They kept at me until I said that as far as I knew, the only remaining local Russian eateries were a couple of little tea rooms that close around 7, before the likes of us can face dinner. "Well, you should keep an eye out," was Martha's last word. "All these Soviet emigres are coming in; they seem to have money and they have to eat somewhere."

A few weeks later, strolling down Clement Street, my eye was nabbed and then arrested by an extraordinary edifice. With a washed-gray steel front, turrets on top, big front windows, and glass placard-pockets on the streetside walls, it looked like an old movie palace, a giant double-oven stove, the Tower of Deco. I crossed over to see what was playing there, and discovered a restaurant called the Russian Bear. The menu looked interesting -- especially an appetizer of blini with red caviar and smoked fish.

D'Arcy and Scott had to come, too, because I had to hear their culinary reports of the Budapest-to-Moscow railway (no good food after Budapest) and of the Moscow-to-Irkutsk Trans-Siberian Railroad (no good food, period) -- and of the near-unfindable Russian Restaurant in Ulan Bator, beloved of all expats and traders on the cashmere trail because it serves the only good food in all of Mongolia.

We gathered shortly before 8 p.m. on a Friday night. The loudspeakers inside were playing mediocre bouncy rock 'n' roll, mostly sung in Russian. A 60-ish waitress who spoke minimal English gave us a choice of seating downstairs (where only two or three tables were occupied yet) or on the second floor. We trooped upstairs to discover something like the dining room at the Hotel Overlook in The Shining, all dressed up and nobody there. White tablecloths, blood-red napkins, seating for hundreds. Giant mirrors lining the walls, tinsel curtains over the windows, a bandstand with no band. Maybe not The Shining after all -- just add a mob of diners and you'd have Al Capone's Untouchables banquet. We descended, preferring the reasonable-size downstairs room bedecked with fish nets and wooden fishes (likely leftovers of a long-gone seafood restaurant) and red Formica-topped tables. The waiter/maitre d' seated us in a window alcove. Now we were the fish in the fishbowl, but soon we started having such a good time eating and talking that the many passers-by peering inside would smile at us, and some even decided to come in for dinner. Meanwhile, the restaurant's regular patrons gradually filled the tables: young ex-Soviets with cell phones; the pouty girls in black fishnet stockings; the boys, buzz cut or ponytailed, in pinstriped gangster suits. "Very Brechtian," said Martha.

The Cyrillic-script menu has English descriptions of the food but few transliterations of their names. When we asked the waiter to say the Russian name of "Meat or Cabbage Filled, Two" he said, "Piroshki" -- but the kitchen was out of them anyway (along with sturgeon and several other dishes). Our server was attentive and had a droll manner, with an accent like Peter Ustinov playing a Russian waiter. But all the food arrived dish by dish -- no rushin' restaurant this, but one with an understaffed kitchen. Since we were sharing all around, it didn't matter much to us, but it would have been a pain if we'd each wanted to have our own food and eat it, too.

We started with a cup of borscht ($1.95). "Keep your madeleines, Proust, I'm there!" Martha exulted. "Wow, this ain't like Mom's," I exulted. The superb soup was served hot (Russian-Americans like my mom often eat it cold) and was based on juicy-ripe tomatoes (probably an excellent canned brand), and was laden with crisp-tender julienned fresh beets, fresh dillweed, black pepper, and a big dollop of sour cream -- which, stirred in, smoothed out all the flavors. Next came a cup of kharcho ($1.95), a Georgian lamb and rice soup with dilled lamb dumplings in thick noodle skins. The peppery broth tasted very lamby, partly because of the grease slick floating on top. Next to arrive was cheburecki ($3.95), consisting of a triangular pair of crackly deep-fried crepes stuffed with tasty minced beef sparked with dillweed and chives. This just about exhausted the in-stock lower-priced appetizers, although we did pass on a sausage-and-deli meat platter. On the last page of the menu, under "Other Entrees," we found Siberian meat dumplings ($6.50), which you may recognize by their Russian name, pelmenyi. These had the same tasty filling as the cheburecki, but were in damp noodle casings. Among the salads, we found marinated mushrooms ($4.25), which featured straw mushroom caps in a thin liquid that none of us found very fascinating, as we were starting to OD on dillweed. The bread basket, by the way, held packaged rye and white.

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