Nightclub meets little-old-lady quaint at the delicious, ambitious Russian House
Reviewed by Rachel Feit, Fri., March 29, 2013
Russian House307 E. Fifth, 428-5442
Mon.-Fri., 11am-2am; Sat.-Sun., 9am-2am
There is something conspicuously ironic about Russian House. Maybe it is the fact that it is equal parts nightclub and restaurant. To get to the food, you must thread your way through the dark front of the house, where infused vodkas line the walls like some sinister science project. Live music (Russian and other) is a frequent occurrence, and when there is no band, there's plenty of Euro technopop. Early diners will find the place empty before about 8pm, but hit Russian House on Thursday or Friday after 9pm, and the place is fairly jumping.
And here's the incongruity: While the front of the house pulsates with a Russian nightclub vibe, the rear dining room is quaint to the point of tackiness. Little-old-lady lace cloths cover the tables, tchotchkes decorate the walls and cupboards, and there's even a faux fireplace with dried herbs hanging over it. But anyone who has ever been treated to a meal in a Russian home knows that Russian House's dining room is a perfect replica. It must be this twin aspect of Russian House's identity that I find so immensely appealing and so ... well, Russian.
The former Soviet Union covered a lot of geographic and ethnic space; as a result, contemporary Russian cuisine is incredibly diverse, combining elements of French, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean cuisine, as well as that of Eastern Europe. Russian House's menu reflects this diversity. Indeed, the menu sprawls from manti (Black Sea region meat dumplings, $12) to kulebyaka (salmon pie in brioche, $15), and, in my opinion, tries to cover too much ground.
Take, for instance, the cheburek ($3 each), which is a deep-fried, meat-filled dumpling that originates from Turkish and Balkan cuisine. Chebureki are frequently sold as street food or in cafes that specialize in them, and must be made fresh to order. Russian House's cheburek is made-to-order, but the filling is dull, and the dough lacks the airy crispness I remember from my favorite chebureki spot along the Crimean coast. It is good, but it is clearly not the kitchen's specialty.
On the other hand, I love the Ukrainian borscht ($12), which also happens to be one of Russian House's signature dishes. This much-loved classic – made from julienned beets, cabbage, and potatoes in a spunky tomato and meat broth – is truly worth getting to know. It is hearty without being heavy, with layers of flavor that gradually unfold; by the 10th spoonful, you'll wonder why the Cold War ever happened.
In fact, cabbage dishes generally won't let you down at Russian House and may just be the next best thing to a trip to Moscow. The Moscow's solyanka ($9), a casserole of tomato-tinged cabbage slow-cooked with sausage and other meats, evokes crackling fires on a snowy day. OK, so maybe not the best choice for an Austin summer, but come January, it is just the dish for warming effect. Meat-stuffed cabbage (golubtsy, $19) is another winner. Russian House's version is slow-stewed and smothered in a creamy tomato sauce.
Finally, don't miss the Uzbek plov ($15), which is another of the kitchen's specialties. Americans typically refer to this dish as a pilaf, but Russian-style plov generally incorporates lamb, browned onions, and carrots (sometimes pumpkin), baked in fluffy, spice-scented rice. Russian House's version has a prominent coriander flavor, is not too greasy – as sometimes plovs can be – and (with a little extra salt) is compulsively edible.
If there is any room after dinner, I recommend the cottage-cheese-and-prune-stuffed apple baked in honey ($7). Its flavors seem positively medieval, but its sticky simplicity makes a fine end to a meaty Russian meal.
It is true – the Russians have finally invaded Austin. I say, it's about damn time.