I spotted a friend during a recent meal at The Russian House and felt a jolt of surprise. Not the regular and welcomed response to seeing a friend … a genuine shock. The kind you feel when you run into someone you know from back home while you’re traveling abroad. Say, in Russia.
Such is the transportive nature of the bar, restaurant and de facto Russian cultural center on Fifth Street created by husband and wife owners Vladimir Gribkov and Varda Salkey. She is the towering presence in the dining room who played professional basketball in Russia after a collegiate career at Georgetown University, and he the chef with a 25-year history in kitchens spanning from Ukraine to France.
I haven’t seen anything like The Russian House in Austin, a town purported by the heavily accented and friendly staff as having a community of about 6,000 Russians. There is a slight kitsch factor — a prop area up front offers old Soviet uniforms or "ushanka" hats for imbibers — but the place has an authentic and personally curated vibe. Old Soviet-era Socialist Realism art posters cover the walls in the front room, where a large bar features more than 70 flavored vodkas and some thumping synthesizer-heavy Russian dance music.
Step into the main dining area, and it’s like walking onto the stage of a Russian play. Vintage silver Russian wallpaper peels at its corner, revealing a backing of old Russian newspaper. The tables are draped with lace, as is one of the doorways, and black-and-white photos of Russians famous (Leo Tolstoy) and unknown (family photos) line the walls. Vintage plates, glasses and flatware enhance the feeling that you’ve walked into someone’s apartment in Moscow, a sense confirmed by my sister, a former Moscow resident.
The rich food has the familiar quality of many of the meals I ate in Russia: It keeps you feeling warmed and hearty while absorbing some of the vodka you’ll want to try during your meal.
The solyanka soup ($9 at lunch) could serve as a great preemptive hangover cure, its oily sheen coating your insides. The visible layer of fat comes from a stock said to be made of eight different meats in this hearty mixed vegetable soup. Briny olives and a citrus shine of lemon peek through the soup that harkens to a cold winter day in Moscow.
I preferred the Ukrainian borsch ($12) from the pan-Soviet menu that represents several countries, including Kazakhstan and Ukraine, and stretches back to pre-Revolutionary times. Earthy beets proliferate the ruby soup without overwhelming it, with chunks of stewed meat providing a textural counterpoint to the slippery slivers of vegetable and bright parsley leaving a slight herbal aftertaste.
Even some of the "lighter" dishes are a bit heavy at The Russian House, as evidenced by the traditional Olivier ($7), a picnic-style salad of diced vegetables and chopped ham tossed in a generous amount of tangy mayonnaise. That ham appears in more robust and unadorned form on the plainly named, Meat Delicacies dish. The $12 platter features thick cuts of smoked ham, the salty funk of Hungarian salami and beef tongue. Served cold, with flavors hinting at pastrami, the tongue had no sear of fried crust to hide behind and stood up to a fierce spicy brown mustard that would knock the top hat off Mr. Grey Poupon.
Mushrooms have an important place in the history of Russian cuisine and culture, and you will find the meaty fungus across much of the menu. They hide beneath a layer of cheese baked to a golden crust on top of a sour cream sauce piqued by pepper in the julienne ($10). Mushrooms and pepper also give color and flavor to a heavy dish of beef stroganoff. The rippled waves of buttery smooth mashed potatoes were piping hot, the sirloin put up no fight and the creamy sauce had a nice depth of flavor, but the $23 price tag made me do a double take.
In an attempt to go lighter with an appetizer, we chose smoked salmon to go with the crepe-like blinis, but the cream cheese smothered the fish and muffled the snap of cucumber ($6.50). But the buttery pancakes were perfect with the expressive fish flavors of red caviar ($9.50) on another visit. I had a shot — and the shots here seem to be of the one-ounce variety — of sour strawberry vodka to go with my smoked salmon dish and enjoyed its puckering effects. I didn’t have the nerve to wander into more exotic flavors like pickle juice or spiced pumpkin, but the large wooden tables in the open-air, street-side area seem like a good place to do some vodka investigation.
Bread plays an integral part in Russian meals, but I found the offerings at The Russian House problematic. The meat-filled pirozhki appetizers ($5) resemble little kolaches, but the bread was tough and chewy. Thick kulebyaka — basically sandwiches stuffed inside a loaf of bread — suffered from an unbalanced bread-to-filling ratio, with the compelling mixture of salmon, sturgeon, corn and capers lost inside the doughy delivery system. Pelmeni ($17), think Russian ravioli, were more delicate and the ground veal inside flavorful, but the watery remnants from the dumplings’ hot-water bath were unappetizing.
A friend visiting from Chicago joined for one meal, and we felt remiss that we didn’t get to re-introduce him to Texas barbecue, but the chicken taboka ($17) was our Russian proxy. The dark auburn chicken with crackling skin had a deep smokiness to it, but the meat inside had been sapped of its moisture, a casualty remedied somewhat by dipping the bird in ajika, a Russian cousin to salsa made of peppers and tomatoes.
The lamb shank ($27) impressed more than any of the other meat offerings. A sweet and sour sauce spiked with peppers was balanced with tender and very gamey meat that pulled easily from a bone the size of my forearm. It was a nice change of pace from the standard lamb chop and rendered enough meat for a healthy portion of leftovers.
And there’s a good chance you will have food left to take home the next day. The portions are all very generous in the dishes that receive a helpful description from a professional service staff of mostly Russians and Ukrainians. The heavy dishes also mean that dessert will seem more a challenge than a reward — maybe all those calories are why Russians like to dance during meals. If you have the stamina, try the cold chocolate fudge studded with walnuts ($6), a specialty of Salkey’s grandmother, a nice home-spun touch at a restaurant that does its best to make you feel as if you’re visiting, if not your grandmother’s house, somebody’s grandmother’s house.
The Russian House offers glimpses into the culture and community of another country. And, no, my sister didn’t move to Russia for the cuisine. She went for the history, the language and the exotic charms of a place that still felt removed from the West. The Russian House is definitely a place apart from the Austin restaurant scene. The food has its limitations and won’t win praise for its creativity or subtlety, but The Russian House delivers a unique experience you won’t find anywhere else in town.