From Russia, With Love

Tverskaya’s authenticity is worth a step outside your comfort zone

The scene is slightly surreal:

A blond woman plays a rousing rendition of “Dancing Queen” on the electric violin, while a large group exhorts her in animated Russian. One of the guests sits rather grandly against a crimson wall plastered with Cyrillic language posters I can’t read, a man who looks disturbingly like Lenin. We’re not at Mandalay Bay’s Red Square, though. We are inside Tverskaya, the real article.

Do you remember this place, our only bona fide Russian restaurant, when it was called Eliseevsky? If you do, then you’ll see that the izba (the farmer’s hut motif) has been completely done away with. That was a narrow room paneled in white birch, with an attached market. This is a vast dining room populated with Styrofoam cutouts in traditional dress on its walls, and a spacious array of tables clothed in white.

Tverskaya takes its name from the main street in Moscow that was known as Gorky during the years of communism. Proprietor Vitali Klochko—once a dancer with the Moiseyev Troupe—insists the chef’s cuisine is exactly the style you get in Moscow. Don’t be argumentative; he doesn’t want to hear it.

When I mentioned that Tverskaya beef Stroganoff was nonstandard, with a texture similar to a less finely chopped Sloppy Joe, he replied: “This is exactly how it is in Moscow,” he told me. “You’ve probably never had an authentic Stroganoff.”

The first course is homemade bread, a delicious Russian rye known as black bread in Russian, and in some circles here as well. That will go perfectly with your borscht, a beet, cabbage, potato and beef soup enriched with sour cream. There’s also solyanka, which the menu tells us is a sour tomato soup. It’s not sour, thanks to shards of chicken, pork and beef in the crock. It’s a real meal, by the way.

This isn’t exactly light fare. What Russians call salad is what I might call a picnic. Stolichny (a.k.a. Olivier) is like a potato salad with peas, carrots and chicken thrown in for good measure. The best appetizer is pelmeni, meat-filled Siberian dumplings served in a chicken broth with a handful of dill and more sour cream. Did I mention that sour cream is mother’s milk to a Russian peasant? Well, I’m telling you now.

Things are made to order here, so the kitchen is, er, deliberate. But it’s worth the wait, in general. Blinchiki, a meat-stuffed crepe (or mushroom, if you’d prefer) is especially good with the soups, but a main course might be too much if you go that route.

I was quite fond of the shashlik (marinated grilled pork on the skewer), the tabaka (flattened grilled Cornish game hen), and chicken Kiev, the dish I ate for a main course at virtually every meal on my visits to the former Soviet Union. (I’d have ordered differently back then, but they were always out of everything else, other than caviar.)

If you’ve never had chicken Kiev, this is as good a version as I’ve ever tasted. It’s a golden torpedo with a crunchy crust, which spurts butter, herbs and juice when prodded with a fork. I remember throwing one lesser specimen on the floor at the Hotel Sputnik in St. Petersburg to avoid eating it. Vitali didn’t act surprised when I mentioned this. He is a Muscovite, after all.

With regard to the beverage program, you’ll have to B.Y.O.V. (bring your own vodka). Tverskaya does not yet have a beverage license, but there is kvas, a yeasty non-alcoholic drink, and mors, a delicious libation made from berries, to help the buckwheat go down.

Just don’t tell Vitali that the Stroganoff tastes better in St. Petersburg.

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