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.
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.