Sometimes You Eat the Bear

The dinner's piece de resistance was the blini-caviar-smoked-fish extravaganza ($12.50). The fish eggs were bottled salmon caviar, which I confess to loving despite its inferiority to the pricier fresh product. (In fresh caviar, the eggs are discrete, and when bitten, they pop and gush. Pasteurization turns the eggs' surfaces slightly gluey and clinging, and minimizes the "pop.") The smoked salmon (which the waiter said came from Russia) was extraordinary: It had been wet-cured but had a deep, smoky flavor absent from American lox. The herring was also wet-cured, but simply, so it tasted like itself -- not like one of those overpowering liquids that deform pickled herring in the West. The whitefish, too, was unusual: Cut in boneless chunks like the herring, it was salty, oily, and intense to the point of exoticism. All these, and sour cream, too, were to be laid on or rolled in or eaten alongside the blini -- but the blini weren't blini. Instead of hearty-flavored, rough-textured buckwheat, they were made with white flour, and were actually delicate French crepes. They were delicious, but this is one instance where I really wanted the Russian version, not the French equivalent.

Up till then we'd been eating the Bear; now the Bear took a bite out of us. When the main courses (averaging $11 each) started to arrive at their stately pace, the food took a nose dive. Best was the shish kebab. "You like lamb or pork kebabs?" the waiter asked. We questioned him in return until we learned that the cook is from Armenia, which means the cook likes lamb. Chunks from a tender cut, rigorously trimmed and gently marinated, were grilled pale pink. (I prefer them rosier.) They came with a pile of shredded cooked onions rather than the assorted grilled vegetables we associate with the dish.

Beef stroganoff had thinly julienned beef and caramelized onion shreds in a glutinous sour cream sauce that tasted bright at first but eventually grew cloying; we're used to some accompanying noodles to toss in and lighten the mix. A thick fillet of salmon, heavily salted, was grilled over high heat until crisp outside, dry inside. It had no sauce, not even a lemon wedge. Chicken Kiev ("Good order!" said the waiter. "I am from Kiev!") consisted of a dense hunk of deep-fried, dry chicken breast, rolled around smears of dillweed and an anomalous jutting thigh bone, and swathed in a commercial-tasting breading similar to that on Banquet frozen fried chicken. When I cut into the center, not a drop of the expected gush of melted butter spilled out, and the minuscule cavity at the center gave physical proof of the omission. Each of these entries came with a handful of overcooked carrots and broccoli. For starch, there was a choice between dry, reheated white rice or flavorless, lukewarm mashed potato scoops, stiff as a Victorian dowager's corset. Finally, the Ukrainian pork stew must have been cooked by Aunt Irma's ghost. Dryish pork chunks and soggy carrots, potatoes, and celery populated a bland tan potato-flecked sauce with (again) dillweed. It did have some succulent mushroom slices, and "meat and potatoes" types will probably enjoy it.

For beverages, since the wine choice was limited (a single California cab) we tried both versions of an Estonian beer called Saku (pronounced "Shkoo"), which was light-flavored and nearly sweet in the "dark" version, and more conventional (although still sweetish) in the "light" version. D'Arcy had a glass of Russian vodka, which pleased the waiter, but it was "just vodka," she said.

We were gluttons for punishment, or just gluttons, and ordered the sole dessert (also from the "Other Entrees" menu section): cherry dumplings. The waiter said the kitchen was out of them, but then came back with a dinner plate covered with soggy noodle squares topped with cornstarch-gluey canned cherry-pie filling. Martha left over a cup of abominable coffee. I left over a demitasse of beastly espresso. Better we should have had a nice glass of tea. When we got the stiff bill, we found that the waiter had given himself a 20 percent tip, but his accent was so cute we let it pass.

It had been an interesting foray into the culture of the new Soviet immigrants in San Francisco, including modern Russian food. And the first half made an excellent meal. If you, too, get a yen for Russian, you might just order borscht, cheburecki, and blini, and you'll eat the best of the Bear, instead of letting the Bear eat you.

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