We were sitting down to dinner at Russian Renaissance, the ornately appointed, Czar Nicholas II-oriented restaurant that has been a Richmond District landmark for 41 years. I've known Alexei for over a decade: He is the occasional sort of friend, one who reappears every couple of years, displaces the surrounding molecules, and leaves again. His usual topic of conversation is the wide variety of women who break his heart on a regular basis, but on that night the subject was food -- and Russian food in particular. (Alexei hails from the Ural Mountains, where appetites are legendarily hearty and discerning.) In keeping with the great Russian tradition of dining in numbers, there were not only a half-dozen in our dinner party, but also a room full of regalia'd Russians all around us, celebrating their matriarch's 75th birthday.
Russian Renaissance has changed a lot since the days when Boris ran things from behind the long heavy bar, serving up Russian Bears and Cossack's Kisses with the same brand of surly suspicion made famous at Persian Aub Zam Zam. (Many a time I'd order a particularly baroque-sounding cocktail from the lengthy bar menu only to have Boris regard me with a bemused gaze and say, simply, "No.") Back then, a lone, gleaming-haired violinist would stroll among the diners, offering heavy doses of musical schmaltz (and a soulful glance or two for the ladies) while trying not to collide with a table or a waiter. Russian Renaissance was dark, very dark, but not so dark as to keep you from appreciating the overwhelming array of White Russian kitsch dripping from every inch of the walls. With its sweeping, minaret-accented front sign in intermittently blinking neon, the venue was a highly visible symbol of the Richmond's strong Russian heritage, a citywide strain that dates back to those itinerant sealskinners of the 1830s who gave Russian Hill its name.
The neon sign's still out there, but the interior underwent a renovation after Boris died a few years ago. Now five elaborate gold and black chandeliers illuminate a royal blue color scheme and wall-sized tapestries rife with onion minarets, fur-clad peasantry, trusty steeds, and rolling plains, "representing," said Alexei, "a fable I do not recall." Floral bouquets adorn every table, and lovely, czar-worthy lapis lazuli platters limned in gold rest at each place setting. All of the food arrives on beautiful silver platters decorated with intricate fruit-and-leaf designs. The ceiling is a striking mosaic of flowers and vegetables in gold, blue, and burgundy, and the entire mise en scène is preserved from gawking Geary passers-by via heavy, blue drapes.
The Renaissance still features live music on weekends, especially when a few dozen diners are celebrating Grandmama's 75 personal solar revolutions, but the violinist has been replaced by a keyboard player whose offerings are distinctly post-schmaltz, but only according to some Slavic notion of Western pop circa 1977. (One crowd favorite is "Besame Mucho.") The resultant dancing on this particular night included a brisk mambo number by the guest of honor, resplendent in her tiara, and an impressive solo turn by a prepubescent child well-schooled in Comrade Travolta's silkier movements. "Russian popular music," said Alexei with considerable embarrassment, "is like a time machine."
All in all it's a warm and festive refuge from the January nip, operated by a people experientially adept at overcoming climatological challenges. "In Russia the winter is so cold, it kills everything," said Alexei. "There's no fruit in Russia -- you have to get it from Bulgaria." The time-honored cure-all for those breezy Siberian temperatures is, of course, vodka, and not just because of the pleasant burn it leaves at the back of your throat. "With heavy Russian food you drink vodka, and that makes you hungry so you eat more and drink more and eat more." (Vodka can be fun, too. I once co-hosted a vodka tasting at which the guests had their own individual fluted shot glasses, purchased for the occasion and kept buried in ice between tastings. Potluck zakuski [appetizers] ranging from caviar to smoked fish helped to cleanse the palate, while the Soviet Army Chorus & Band urged us on through my stereo speakers. A good time, as they say, was had by all.)
What's the best way to experience one of Russian Renaissance's 17 varieties of the stuff? "Look the person across from you in the eye and then drink it down in one gulp. That is the best way. Second best is to taste it, kiss it." Top of the line is Youri Dolgoruki, named after the founder (or the settler, depending on whom you talk to) of Moscow and produced 850 years after his death -- an intense, body-warming brew. A friendlier option is Poland's comparatively sweet and gentle Fidler; both are fine toast 'n' shoot options. For the table bottle, however, we chose Monopolowa, a smooth potato vodka out of Vienna that disappeared fast, what with all the toasting and eyeballing and kissing going on. One authentic Russian touch is the ice-filled pitchers of cranberry juice that accompany the bottles of frozen vodka, but beware: The juice-vodka combo can sneak up on your pocketbook (as well as your brain cells) before you know it.
"Appetizers are very important in Russian cuisine," said Alexei, scanning the menu between sips of potato likker. "They are also part of the great interactive dining tradition -- you nibble from big, shared platters and drink vodka and talk. The main difference between German and Russian cuisine is all the zakuski." Among them, the pelmeni were delicious -- tender little dumplings with a rich filling of minced beef and herbs swimming in a warm sauce of onions, peppers, and cream. It's comfort food, Slavic style. The blini weren't as successful, and they shouldn't even be called blini: Instead of the yeasty, airy buckwheat pancakes of long tradition, what we got were perfectly respectable white-flour crepes topped off with some overly salty caviar that lacked the phosphorescent sparkle of the good stuff. The assorted meat plate for two "is not Russian," said a disappointed Alexei. "It's just lots of sliced American ham." (At this point there was a heated discussion between Alexei and our waitress, which the rest of us, being Cyrillic-challenged, couldn't understand.) It should be noted, however, that the ham was thinly cut and nicely smoky, but a bit more variety would have been nice; we especially missed the advertised, and absent, pickled beef tongue.
The meal proper began with bowls of hot borscht -- a simple, soothing, earthy rendition strewn with chunks of al dente beet and cabbage, a thick dollop of sour cream turning everything pink, and a tiny, buttery meat pie alongside. Equally impressive was the quail Romanoff, in which two moist, smoky birdlings were served Americanski style with a buttery stuffing and a piquant cranberry sauce. Red and green grapes and new potatoes with fresh dill added their own contrasting accents. The St. Petersburg salmon prompted another heated discussion between our waitress and Alexei, possibly because the fish was a little too fishy in flavor and aroma and too chewy in texture (it was replaced with no apparent improvement), but its accompaniment of hot, buttery fried potatoes was dreamy.
Shashlik is a sort of Georgian shish kebab (which makes sense, considering that Turkey is Georgia's next-door neighbor) in which marinated lamb cubes are grilled over charcoal, but Russian Renaissance's version included "lots of California cuisine additions. In Georgia they really know how to make shashlik." Not being a purist, I liked the citrusy oyster mushrooms and the sweet, smoky pepper-tomato salad that accompanied the meat; the lamb itself was rare, moist in texture, and subtly accented with caraway seeds, a tasty touch. The golubtzi was a pleasant but not overly memorable version of stuffed cabbage, its familiar flavors of dill and sour cream rendering it largely indistinguishable from several other menu items. The beef stroganoff (my first foray into exotic cuisine when I was an Underwood Deviled Ham-lovin' 8-year-old) was as dilly and as creamy as the stuffed cabbage, but the beef fillets were fork-tender and the peppers added a welcome crunch, even though, as Alexei insisted, "There are no peppers in Russia."
For dessert we ordered everything. There was an elaborate concoction featuring alternate layers of rum-enriched chocolate and fluffy white cake, fudge frosting, dollops of raspberry jam, and delicate slivers of mango. There was a pretty good vanilla ice cream served in a martini glass with a touch of chocolate sauce and a rich, flaky chocolate-almond cigarette. There were sweet, chewy crepes filled with a puckery cottage cheese mixture and dusted with powdered sugar. And there were other, far superior crepes, light and tender and stuffed with soft, sweet stewed apple.
The final verdict? "I am disappointed, of course. But this is a normal process in America, where there are so many influences affecting the authenticity of the dishes. ... It is not Russian. But most of the food is good." Most of the food is good indeed, but there's a creamy sameness to many of the dishes that occasionally veers into the perfunctory; however, careful ordering can result in a tasty meal served up in effervescent, retro surroundings. As the keyboard player struck up his disco version of "Hava Nagilah," it was time to dance. And after double-checking that the Monopolowa was nothing but a memory, the bunch of us did just that.