Russian Without Regret

About five years ago, I lived in the same apartment complex as a Russian couple newly arrived in the United States. As much as I loved spending time with Igor and Tanya, I dreaded their dinner invitations.

I'd met food pushers before — you know, the kind of people who insist you have seconds and thirds and a big helping of dessert and who act offended if you decline. But these two were in a different league altogether. The food orgy started the minute you walked in the door, with herring, piroshki and Russian pancakes called blini. And those were appetizers. By the time you got to the table, which was rather difficult as the cocktail hour was, to say the least, vodka-driven, you could hardly face the huge bowls of borscht, blini oozing red caviar, beef stroganoff and breaded, fried cutlets that were to follow.

And Tanya wasn't exactly a practitioner of nouvelle cuisine. Richer (gobs of butter and vats of sour cream) was better, heavy (dumplings like doorstops) better still. Dessert was always some gooey, marzipany glump, served with very strong coffee that kept you up all night thinking about how disgusted you were with yourself for eating and drinking like such an animal.

I kept a safe distance from Russian food after that, with the exception of a visit to the Russian Renaissance Restaurant on outer Geary every few years to drink one of the outrageous vodka cocktails. So Katia's — A Russian Tea Room was a revelation for its pared-down, clean cooking. The flakiest piroshki, velvety smoked salmon, crisp and juicy chicken cutlets, delicately flavored beef stroganoff — Russian food without regret.

With its corner location and windows on two sides, Katia's 12-table dining room is drenched in light, so much so that white accordion shades are drawn in the early evening. Speaking of accordions, Alex Yaskin plays an international repertoire on accordion and guitar during dinner, which is mostly pleasant but sometimes makes you feel as if you were at a Russian skating rink.

On our first visit we have the place to ourselves. One bite of the rye bread (baked, we later learned, by Bakers of Paris especially for Katia's) and we know we're in good hands. For starters, piroshki ($2) come filled with beef, mushroom or cabbage; we choose cabbage and marvel at the light, golden pastry encasing it. Curls of Norwegian smoked salmon ($4.50) are as smooth as we've tasted.

Cutlets pozharski ($8.50) are made of ground chicken and milk (instead of the traditional butter), resulting in a less dense dish. Beef stroganoff ($9.50), tender and brimming with mushrooms and onions, is in a sour cream/onion/mustard sauce.

We share a “strawberry pudding” for dessert, which is more like a sundae, with an overly sweet strawberry sauce spooned on ice cream.

On our next visit, there are eight full tables and only one waiter. He gamely tries to keep up but, clearly, another body would be helpful. This is the reality of the restaurant business: four dinners served one night, 35 the next. And for customers, the difference between being pampered and having to flag down the waiter. Halfway through our dinner, we see owner Katia Troosh run in; she's obviously been summoned from home to help out, both in the kitchen and at the front of the house.

We start with eggplant caviar ($2.75), a mound of chunky-textured eggplant, onion, tomato and garlic, whose heady flavors are paired perfectly with tiny melba toasts. A cucumber and tomato salad ($2.50) is attractively presented with purple cabbage and garbanzo beans, but the vinaigrette tastes like Wish-Bone.

Vegetarian potato cutlets ($7), boiled potatoes breaded, fried and smothered in a creamy mushroom sauce, are an off-the-charts indulgence, but obviously any one recipe that has potato and breaded and fried in it isn't for those who plan on tucking their shirt into their jeans the next day. The accompanying kashka (buckwheat groats) has a funny dry cleaner-like smell — and tastes stale to boot. Golubtsi ($8.50) is ground beef mixed with rice and onions, wrapped in cabbage leaves and baked in tomato sauce. It's a spa version of Tanya's cabbage rolls, with the exception of the generous dollop of sour cream.

For dessert, we try a raspberry tea cake, a dryish square of yellow cake topped with raspberry jam, slivered almonds and powdered sugar. Not great. Other choices are cheesecake and meringue cake, all made by Troosh. My dining partner wonders where the chocolate is, apparently feeling chocolate something — anything — is a necessary exclamation point at the end of a meal.

The wine list runs from $12 for an Orvieto Mottura to $22 for a Babcock Chardonnay. A $14 Pinot Grigio is a crisp, excellent choice, although some would argue for beer with Russian food.

Sunday brunch offers up traditional brunch items like eggs benedict, but also Russian specialties including blintzes, dumplings filled with cottage cheese and a beignet-like deep-fried dough called leepeshki.

Katia's has its first birthday in June. Troosh, who emigrated from Shanghai's Russian community to San Francisco in 1950 and has spent most of her life in the the western part of the city, says her restaurant draws heavily on the Eastern Europeans in the Richmond, but foodies looking for life after California cuisine are trickling in.

A postscript for Russian Renaissance devotees: Boris Vertloogin, who opened the place 36 years ago and was, in large part, its spirit, died last month. Not to worry — his family is carrying on in his tradition. The bizarre, time-warp decadence of the restaurant is intact, with its murals of a fantasy-rich czarist Russia complete with noblemen and maidens, antique doll collection, piano bar and strolling gypsy violinist. They're still serving up ferocious vodka concoctions with names like “troika” (vodka, black rum and lime juice) and “katusha” (vodka, lemon juice and triple sec), after which ordering a plate of caviar blini (red for $15, black beluga for $45) always seems reasonable. According to Boris' granddaughter, Russian Renaissance is still open seven days a week at the idiosyncratic hour of 4 p.m., “because that's the way Boris did it.”

Katia's — A Russian Tea Room, 600 Fifth Ave, S.F., 668-9292. Open Tue-Sat 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; Tue-Thurs 5-9 p.m.; Fri & Sat 5-10 p.m. Sunday brunch 10 a.m.-3 p.m.

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