The House of Sour Cream

Our critic finds Russian food more artful than a Russian painter

I was having trouble forcing myself to go see the Chagall show at SFMOMA. Except for one afternoon decades ago, I've never liked his work — but that one afternoon was spent at a previous retrospective of his oeuvre, when something clicked after long exposure to the faux-primitive technique, the magical-realist content, and the candy colors, and I got it. (The effect wore off over time.) I thought I owed it to him to give his paintings another whirl, but weeks went by, and I didn't feel at all compelled to check out the exhibition. So I fell back on an old trick: To make the prospect more alluring, I'd treat myself to a Russian meal, in homage to his homeland.

When I tried to enlist my mom in this scheme, she was willing but not excited until I threw in another art temptation: the show of the late Bay Area figurative painter David Park at the Hackett-Freedman Gallery. Both the Park and the Chagall were closing within days of our proposed jaunt. “Miss Last Nighter,” I thought. Or “Last Chance,” as the New York Times Weekend section has it.

As we trudge up Sutter to the gallery, I hear my mom mutter, “Oh boy oh boy oh boy.” I look over at what has caught her attention, and say, sternly, “No, Mom, we're not going to Loehmann's.” We're on a schedule! In fact, I've already apologized to her for the wacky itinerary: “Most people wouldn't drive downtown for one show, get back in the car and go out to the Richmond for lunch, and then drive back downtown to get in line for another.” “We're not most people,” my mom says, supportively. “No,” I say grimly, “we're on deadline.”

The Park show is terrific: He's as good as it gets, as far as I'm concerned. Most of the paintings are on loan from private collections, and not for sale. My mother loves a canvas called The Woods, showing several men in a green-leafed forest, whose price is listed as “on request.” I request. “$600,000,” I tell my mom. “I'll get the catalog,” she says.

I've always loved Russian food, starting with my grandma's blintzes and stuffed cabbage and plum jam. I learned to check out the menus in places whose names included the buzzwords “European” or “Continental,” in the days when “Russian” wasn't considered a draw, in search of beef stroganoff and chicken Kiev. Feasts of blini and caviar, followed by little pelmeni dumplings in rich chicken broth with snippets of dill, both dishes enriched with the benediction of sour cream (one of my very favorite things), drew me to the unapologetically named Russian Tea Room in New York, now sadly vanished.

But Katia's Russian Tea Room flourishes on its corner, snug and cozy, especially for us, as we tuck into a corner banquette table on a brisk but sunny day. We order a multicourse feast: the zakuski (“little bites,” or appetizers) platter to start, followed by blini and then golubsti (stuffed cabbage) for my mom and pelmeni for me.

The zakuski are all fresh and bright-tasting: lightly tomato-y eggplant caviar, crunchy with onion, redolent of garlic and dill; pale, firm chunks of marinated mushroom; an especially good, subtly mayonnaised version of salade Olivier, aka Russian salad, with crisp dice of green apple mixed in with the expected potatoes, peas, carrots, pickles, and cucumber. I keep some of the garlicky house-cured dill pickle spears to eat with the blini. We get four big, buttery, yeasty crepes, and a plate of sour cream, fresh dill sprigs, smoked salmon, salmon caviar, and slices of herring, to roll up in various combinations. The salmon caviar are large orange beads that burst satisfyingly in the mouth; the salmon is silky. But I'm especially beguiled by the clean, smoky taste and fine texture of the herring. (The blini, with their luxurious accouterments, seem an amazing bargain at $18, especially compared to the zakuski plate, at $14.50.)

When cut into, the stuffed cabbage — two neatly wrapped pale green cylinders in a light tomato sauce — reveal a tender forcemeat of ground beef, rice, onions, parsley, and garlic. I like the fluffy, mild, nutty kasha it comes with, but my mother thinks it's missing something (“Maybe,” I wonder, “the floods of chicken fat and caramelized onions that her mother, my non-Russian grandmother, used to enrich it with”). The dumpling skins on the pelmeni are a trifle thicker and less elastic than the old Russian Tea Room version of my dreams, but I'm still very happy spooning them up and making sure that each spoonful gets its share of thick sour cream. Did I mention that I love sour cream?

For dessert I want syrniki, described as fried patties of sweetened cheese, but am talked into the freshly made cherry vareniki by the ebullient, charming Katia herself, who seemingly effortlessly takes our orders, serves, and chats with us and the only other lunchtime diners, a couple sitting by the window and conversing in musical Italian. (We can hear musical Russian coming from the kitchen on our other side. Ah, cosmopolitan San Francisco!) The vareniki, served with a bit of kissel (a thick berry sauce), also have slightly thicker dough than I prefer, but my mother's napoleon is an amazingly light and airy confection such as we'd never had. Smooth, thick, rich yellow custard is separated by crunchy, fragile, evanescent pastry that vanishes in the mouth. “I only put the two together after you order it,” Katia says, with pardonable pride. “Otherwise it would be soggy.”

Fortified with a glass of Russian tea and an espresso, we return to brave the lines for the Chagall exhibit. This time, although I do grudgingly admire him as a colorist, the click never comes. (At one point, reading a wall text that says Chagall left an art school he started in Russia because of conflict with Malevich, I think, “I wish I was at a Malevich show.”) My mother draws her line in the sand as we exit: “I'm not buying the catalog.”

We walk past the Diane Arbus show, which has just opened. “Oh,” I say, “I guess you're too tired to see that,” but “No,” Mom responds firmly. “I want to!”

“I didn't know she'd committed suicide,” she says as we go in, referring to a review she's just read. “Oh, Mom,” I say, “everybody knows that about Arbus. That's like saying you didn't know Sylvia Plath committed suicide!” (An informal poll conducted by my mother soon proves me wrong.) The beautifully mounted exhibition, complete with shelves of books and prints from Arbus' own collection, is luxuriously empty after the crowded Chagall, but even so the text-heavy show, including lots of excerpts from her dense, tinily printed journal and appointment books, is daunting. It demands revisits. On the way out (like mother, like daughter), I buy the catalog.

Like daughter, like father: He's sufficiently intrigued by the story of our Russian meal (more than by our art books) to suggest a rematch. David and Heftsi join us for an early Sunday dinner at Katia's, and again, tempted by the possibilities, we order a multicourse feast. We start by sharing bowls of beet borsch and mushroom, barley, and potato soup, thoughtfully split for us in the kitchen. The beet borsch is perfectly OK, but the fragrant, woodsy mushroom is so good that I can't see coming back without ordering it again. (It would make a perfect light lunch with slices of Katia's excellent bakery rye bread.) We move on to blini — I can't resist, they're so good, though this time the crepes are on the verge of being burnt — and a satisfying plate of potato vareniki, the mashed-potato-filled, crescent-shaped dumplings doubly blessed with sour cream and buttery strands of caramelized onion. (I love caramelized onion almost as much as I love sour cream. Well, more, maybe, but caramelized onions are less adaptable.) We also share a just-out-of-the-oven piroshki, whose golden, glossy pastry covers a tasty stuffing of mushrooms and noodles.

Mushrooms figure in my favorites among our main courses, too: slippery slices entwined with julienned beef in the tangy stroganoff, and diced in a chunky sauce that improves the slightly bland kotlety Pozharski, fried patties of ground chicken. (I might try the mushroom sauce with the potato vareniki the next time I come in. What do I mean, “might”? I'm hungrily anticipating it.) We also try pleasant poached salmon in a lemon dill sauce, and good lamb shashlik, fried slabs of leg of lamb in a tangy marinade served with sautéed bell peppers.

Tonight the room is full, with several large family parties, and we only see Katia — a finer artist than Chagall, in my opinion — at the beginning and end of our meal (when, sadly, she tells us that I'm not going to try syrniki tonight, either, because the cook has just burned my order, the last in the kitchen). I'm less upset by the lost syrniki than one might think, because I simply remember the mushroom soup and sour cream and potato vareniki and sour cream that will precede them.

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