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Russian Surprise

Houston's multifarious ethnic influences never cease to amaze me. Just when I thought I was as familiar as possible with certain neighborhoods, one day I spy a couple of signs with the words "Russian Cuisine" and "Best Taste of Europe" over two adjacent sets of glass doors, tucked away on an inauspicious side street in a distinctly residential part of town where the only other commercial ventures are a corner store and a coin-operated laundromat.

Beneath the "Russian Cuisine" sign is a tiny retail store that opened about 18 months ago and specializes in selling Russian knickknacks, such as nesting dolls, and a small selection of Eastern European -- mostly Russian -- foods. Plastic buckets of colorful cellophane-wrapped candies in foreign-language flavors rest on top of a refrigerator case full of meats, fishes and whole cheeses. Rows of jams and jellies line the shelves next to cans of pickled eggplant and tins of sardines. Adjoining this little shop is a room of similar size crowded with tables draped in white linen tablecloths. Yes, it's a restaurant, although no menus are to be found, and it's called Best Taste of Europe.

The format is an evening buffet, served on weekdays from 5-8 p.m. and on Fridays from 8 p.m. "till whenever," as proprietress Svetlana Kislyuk says, sounding like a Xeroxed announcement to a frat party. She also enthusiastically advertises that a band plays on Friday nights, and visions enter my head of balalaika musicians playing Ukrainian folk songs. She recommends that we make reservations if we want to come on a Friday because "it gets packed."

So, reservations dutifully made, four of us show up early enough on a Friday evening to polish off a six-pack of beer from the convenience store a few doors down (the restaurant hasn't yet invested in a liquor license, but they invite patrons to BYOB). Sure enough, other customers trickle in so that by eight o'clock, with the spread in place upon a longish table that lines one wall, most tables are full. The combo, too, starts right on time. The combo, however, doesn't consist of folkish stringed instruments, but instead is two synthesizers, one obviously programmed to the balalaika setting; an electric bass, traded off at times for an electric guitar; a baritone sax; and a vocalist singing American and British oldies in Russian. Oh, well, I sigh with my friends, so much for dancing in the aisles Cossack-style.

The food is interesting, if not exactly compelling, and is served church luncheon-style (i.e., without sneeze guards) after being arranged on the buffet tables by a willowy, platinum-haired beauty. As a friend puts it, it's like they decided to put on a covered-dish dinner and make money from it. There was a whole array of homey salads, among other offerings, whose names in Russian I tried to learn from the owner but failed miserably, the loudness of the band being what it was. I did learn an amazing piece of culinary trivia, however: Ms. Kislyuk maintains that carrot and raisin salad, that American bridge party and picnic favorite, originated in Georgia! (The Georgia of the Caucasus, that is.)

Among the other dishes were a beet and turnip salad, all colored magenta; mushrooms ground up with sour cream and garlic; a green and red and blond relish of peppers and onions; a plate of premium-quality sardines garnished with lemon wedges; and a platter of super-salty pickled herring slices overlaid with big rings of raw onions. There also were excellent dolmas, irregularly shaped but terrific tasting, with a puckery sauce of sour cream and lemons. And stuffed cabbage was present, of course, in a version that falls apart in your mouth.

A chafing dish of beaten-flat, fried chicken breasts and buttery rice was fairly disappointing, but a tray of little meat loaf patties and potato slices in their own orange, oily juices was somewhat better. Bottom line: ground beef pervades most dishes. Dessert was unsweetened yeast-breads rolled around two different, mild fillings of what seemed like poppy seeds plus chocolate and -- tucked in the other bread roll -- cherry jelly plus ricotta cheese (by this time, I had given up trying to get names and ingredients of dishes from the owner). It was a fun and strange evening out, even if I didn't know how to pronounce the names of what I was eating. -- Kelley Blewster

Best Taste of Europe, 5406 Birdwood Drive, 665-1177.

Best Taste of Europe:
buffet, $12.00 per person.

 
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