You don't need to know draniki from zrazi to tell the difference between fresh cuisine and food that has been strip-mined from the freezer section. That simple distinction makes Taste of Russia worth the journey to the suburban hinterlands of Cool Springs. Owner and chef Yuriy Kvaternyuk, who moved from the Ukraine five years ago, combines traditional recipes, imported ingredients—and a little taste of the United States—to create Russian, Ukrainian and Polish dishes that taste homemade, no matter how far-flung their origins. A trip to the corner space of a nondescript strip mall off Carothers Parkway offers a gastronomic field trip across the landscape of blintzes, stews, stuffed cabbage and other familiar and not-so-familiar Central European staples.
While the menu is broken down into appetizers, dumplings and blintzes, entrées, salads and soups, a group might be well served to consider the whole meal as a tapas affair and simply order a bunch of things to share as they arrive at the table. We found this to be a successful strategy for several reasons. First of all, we wanted to try as many of the intriguing dishes as possible, and we couldn't have resisted sharing if we had tried. Second, there was plenty of food on each plate for our large group to share. Third, entrées and appetizers are priced comparably, with most items between $5 and $10. Finally, and most pragmatically, on our two visits at the month-old restaurant, the timing was so slow that we seldom had more than one or two items on the table at a time.
On the positive side, every item arrived piping-hot from the oven, glistening from the sauté pan or crisp from the cutting board. Once we abandoned the notion that all our meals would come out together and we surrendered to a catch-as-catch-can style of dining, with plates circling the table as they arrived, we had a delightful—possibly even preferable—experience.
With that in mind, you can throw out the distinctions between appetizers and entrées. Instead, start at the top of the menu and work your way down.
Among the few recognizable names on the menu, beef Stroganoff was a sultry plate of beef strips in a gravy of mushrooms and sour cream. Based on our server's recommendation, we ordered a side of Russian buckwheat kasha, but our meal arrived with standard-issue white rice, which still served as an admirable vehicle for the tangy sauce. (The same comforting and velvety gravy also accompanies the draniki appetizer, a trio of thin potato pancakes similar to latkes.)
Kvaternyuk's favorite—and a crowd-pleaser at our tables—was the Kiev cutlet, a tender chicken breast wrapped around a filling of tomatoes and spongy Russian cheese, deep-fried into a golden-brown package the size and shape of an Idaho spud. When pierced with a fork, the piping-hot and breaded pocket burst with hot, parsley-flecked butter, which oozed across the plate of tender French-fried potato cubes.
Another top-seller among our group was the zharkoe, a twee crock filled with a steaming medley of cubed beef, carrots, potatoes and peas. A single stewed prune on top added a hint of sweetness to balance the savory and salty flavors of meat and vegetables.
To our surprise, we particularly enjoyed the herring plate, which was, literally, a fish-shaped plate bearing a brined herring topped with thin onion slices, coarse black pepper and drizzles of sunflower oil and vinegar. We wrapped the fish in a fluffy lettuce frond and ate it like a leafy burrito stuffed with salty, smooth sashimi.
Three roll-ups of thinly sliced eggplant around molten cheese and tomatoes were soft and smoky with grilled flavor that overshadowed any of the spongy bitterness often associated with eggplant. A plate of pelmeni—tiny, delicate handmade dumplings stuffed with beef or pork—recalled a marriage of tortellini and pot stickers.
We scratched our heads a little over the appetizer of avocado stuffed with a blend of red caviar and shrimp and served with brown bread—a Russian-accented take on guacamole and chips. Like many of the items that pepper the menu, the imported caviar comes from Aleksey Market on Thompson Lane, a Russian food retail store that Kvaternyuk acquired two years ago. But since avocado isn't exactly an agricultural cornerstone of Mother Russia, Kvaternyuk acknowledges, "That is a little bit for American tastes." The same could be said for the salmon tower, a trio of globes formed from curds of Russian cheese, caviar and minced smoked salmon and served on slices of tomato. Like a fishy spin-off of pimento cheese, it's an appetizer that blurs the lines between Russian and American cuisine. Both the avocado and the salmon tower are good for sharing, since both items are almost too rich for one person.
Even the beet-haters in our group conceded that the borsch was spectacular. Steaming hot, the salty and soothing brown broth was textured with beef, potatoes, onions, carrots and shredded beets—which had long abandoned their purplish hue—and accented with a dollop of cool sour cream. (We preferred the borsch to the solianka—a spicy and sour soup of the day with bits of pale smoked sausage bobbing across the top.)
Blintzes were also outstanding and were available in sweet and savory varieties. We enjoyed both the cold appetizer of blintz rolled with smoked salmon and the hot dessert folded like a crepe, stuffed with Russian cheese and served with a side of chunky strawberry preserves.
Even the simplest fried potatoes were exceptional, par-boiled and deep-fried to yield a perfectly crisp exterior around soft cubes that melted away in a hot whisper of garlic.
The side of grilled vegetables was patiently cooked until the carrots, peppers and zucchini were soft and lightly caramelized. Conversely, the long shoestrings of marinated carrots offered a tangy and crisp counterpoint to many of the warm and rich dishes.
If we could have edited our orders, we would have omitted the kvas—Russian bread drink—which the menu describes as a non-alcoholic malt beverage and which my dining companions described as something between a stale Guinness and a loaf of sour bread. We also would have skipped the milk shakes—which were thin and bland—and the Napoleon cake, which was doughy rather than flaky. (Of course, that's not the first Napoleon to stumble on Russian soil.) Instead, we would have ordered more blintzes and a thick Turkish-style coffee to end the meal.
The Taste of Russia team, including Kvaternyuk's wife, is as gracious as any we have come across. The skeleton crew of servers bounced ceaselessly from table to table during our visits, and they met virtually all of our requests generously and enthusiastically. So all that's left is to speed up the kitchen. One place to start might be tightening up the menu. At our table of 10, we did not have a single overlapping dish, and such diverse ordering can make for a lot of cooking. Kvaternyuk & Co. could make things easier on themselves and quicker for their guests by reducing the offerings to a list of their greatest hits. There is more than enough excellent food on the menu to choose from.
Taste of Russia is open Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. A full bar includes an array of flavored vodkas.
photos: eric england
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