The Beet Generation

Katia's: A Russian Tearoom
600 Fifth Ave. (at Balboa), 668-9292. Open for lunch Tuesday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., for dinner Tuesday through Sunday from 5 to 9 p.m. (until 10 p.m. Fridays). Wheelchair accessible. Parking: difficult. Muni: 31 and 44 buses. Sound level: bliss.

I never liked borscht until I ate it in Kathmandu. Though my mother's parents were Russian, she herself could barely cook, so her beet soup came in a bottle -- a cold crimson colloid that she combined with enough sour cream to turn the mixture Pepto-Bismol pink.

But at Kathmandu's famous Yak and Yeti Russian Restaurant, borscht was something else entirely -- a rich, chunky Ukrainian roots-and-meat soup, tasting miraculous after 25 days of pragmatic Sherpa trekking-fuel. I've never succeeded in duplicating the Yak and Yeti version at home, but I tried again recently when the temperatures outside (and in) were near-freezing. Alas, proper borscht takes at least two days to make. On the second day, with four hours of peeling, grating, and simmering still standing between me and my soup, I nabbed some friends and headed for Katia's, which many consider the best Russian restaurant in town. "I'll peel my beets tomorrow," I decided; "Katia's are already peeled."

Despite the "tearoom" designation, Katia's is actually a small, romantic, full-service restaurant. The room is pretty in pink, with large windows, wooden banquettes, white tablecloths, and heartfelt Russian vocals softly accompanying your meal. Since no hard liquor is sold (just wine and beer), high-living immigrant youths head for the wilder scenes of the local Russian front, leaving Katia's to mellow neighborhood folk.

Appetizers are the heart and soul of Russian cooking. Katia's menu includes two pages of soups, salads, blini, and zakuski -- "little bites" such as spreads, pickles, and smoked fish. A lavish hors d'oeuvre table is a requisite of Russian hospitality -- partly (some say) to show off, and to furnish an excuse for making many spirited toasts, but also to quickly warm guests who've braved a cold Russian night to come visiting.

We began our meal with eggplant "caviar" ($3.50), a spread of luscious semipureed, slightly smoky eggplant mixed with tomatoes, dill, and sweet caramelized shreds of onion, served with a half-dozen water crackers. "Vinaigrette" ($4) is a lightly dressed diced salad, a preparation the French describe as "à la Russe." Cubed beets dye the whole mixture a brilliant vermillion, visually disguising ingredients of many flavors and textures -- carrots, potatoes, firm house-made dill pickles, and house-made sauerkraut.

You can also get a heap of the sauerkraut ($4) all by itself. It's partway between a slaw and a true "kraut"; the still-crisp shredded cabbage and carrots taste marinated rather than fully brined. The mixture is touched with sunflower oil, which is much favored in Russian cuisine -- those huge-headed steppes flowers that our seed companies named "Mammoth Russian" furnish a light, nutty-tasting oil.

These small bites were a prelude to the bigger bites of the house specials, potato vareniki and blini with caviar. The vareniki ($9) were 10 plump potato-filled pasta crescents, garnished with tangy-sweet caramelized onion shreds and a dollop of sour cream. At Katia's they were steamed tender but firm, rather than boiled. While vareniki are good, simple winter food, the blini ($15) are conspicuously luxurious, even if their accompanying caviar isn't beluga. The platter included four light, yeast-raised crepes brushed with clarified butter. Their garnishes included a rather stingy daub of sour cream (we borrowed a little surplus from the vareniki) and a startlingly generous heap of supermarket-grade pasteurized salmon roe. They were still good eggs, and not cheap! There were small pieces of outstanding pickled herring, very firm and smoky, and slices of Norwegian lox, soft-cured but perfumed with hardwood smoke. Katia strolled over and explained how to eat the blinis: Put a crepe on your plate, spread what you want in the center, and roll it up. "You eat them with a fork," said Katia. "These are not really burritos, I always tell people."

Finally, the borscht ($4/$5) arrived. This version was mild but soulful, with a touch of vinegar lending a sweet-sour hint, and, though meatless, a base of beef stock. Giving the broth body were a multitude of flavors and textures -- shreds and cubes of beets, cabbage, carrots, tomatoes, and potatoes, plus dill weed and the requisite blob of sour cream. Katia's isn't the Yak and Yeti version -- for one thing, it's Russian, not Ukrainian -- but it's sure another wonderful comfort food from the land where winter was invented.

Since the restaurant's too small to maintain a giant wine inventory, the list not only changes often, it actually changed in the middle of our dinner. A server handed us a new list, from which my friends selected a Moldavian sparkling wine ($5 a glass), which was awfully sweet. A bottle of Moldavian chardonnay ($3/$12) started out fresh and palatable but didn't age well -- 20 minutes after uncorking, it grew bumptious and brown at the edges. You're probably better off with any of the several respectable California bottlings (all priced at a minimal markup).

We wanted to try the piroshki ($2.50, with beef, mushroom, or cabbage filling) but had to save some appetite, so we said our fond farewells to the "little bites" and sailed on to main courses. For whatever reason, I've found few Russian entrees particularly memorable, except maybe those served in restaurants featuring throbbing gypsy violinists, and Cossack-costumed waiters waving swords of flaming shashlik as they dance the khazatski.

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