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Some time ago, an emigre from the post-Soviet nation of Kazakhstan described for me the Russian tradition of dining out: "When a Russian goes out to dinner, he goes to spend the whole evening in a big celebration with family and friends. There has to be drinking, and then plenty of food, and entertainment, a floor show maybe, and then dancing and music and more drinking, until very late in the night."
Since the closing of Svetlana in Woodlake Square, my friend believes, the only place left to experience this Russian ritual in Houston is the Stoli Grill.
Mikhail Knizhnik, originally from the Ukraine and a former Soviet army cook, opened this Eastern European-style supper club three years ago. "But don't worry," he says, "my cooking now is completely different from what I did for the army. Words cannot describe how different this food is from the army food. After I left the Ukraine, I cooked in Austria and Italy and New York, then here in Houston at The Briar Club. So I have spent much more time in restaurants than in the army."
The Stoli Grill presents an unassuming brick facade onto Memorial Drive just west of Town and Country Village, marked only by a dark blue awning with its name printed in simple white lettering. Inside, though, the walls of the rectangular dining room are dramatically drenched in deep velvety red, emblazoned here and there with gold fleurs-de-lis and dimly lit with tinkling chandeliers and brass sconces. The tables are arranged around a small parquet dance floor, with a hulking pile of electronic sound equipment awkwardly stacked around a glossy black baby grand.
The show is best on weekend nights -- but late on weekend nights. When we arrived at 8:30 one evening, an unfashionable hour early by Russian standards, a strained-looking bearded gentleman was acting as a one-man band, switching from the keyboard to a gypsy violin and back again, all the while twiddling with the tape system that blared his backup music. Three generations of a Russian family crowded around a table near the windows, celebrating the 70th birthday of a spry, silver-haired matriarch. Couples sitting closely side by side populated the other tables. The median age at that early hour leaned toward the fiftysomething, with the exception of a tall, dark-haired Russian youth cuddling an equally tall Spanish-speaking beauty who wore an astonishingly small black dress.
We had supposed that the Stoli Grill might stock a number of interesting vodkas to try. "Yes, we have vodka," confirmed the waiter. "But what kinds?" we asked. "Stoli," he said tersely. Um, okay. So we had Stoli, and a decent Kendall Jackson Chardonnay from the modest wine list, and began with blini and salmon caviar and sour cream ($10). Although the menu also boasts osetra and beluga caviar, neither was available. The waiter helpfully pointed to the words "market price" marked below each and explained that "When we have them, you can tell because we put the price in here." (Since "market price" appeared to be indelibly printed, I wonder how often the black sturgeon caviar is actually available.)
Elsewhere I've had buckwheat blini that were marvelously thin and delicate, like the French crepes that inspired them, and as big as a dinner plate. Here, we were all surprised to see that the blini were thick and small, about the diameter of tennis balls, served only three to the plate, but generously loaded with dollops of glistening red caviar. "These aren't blini," grumbled our man from Kazakhstan. "They're pancakes." They were, however, pleasantly fluffy and light, though a little dry, needing a dab more sour cream than the quarter-cup or so they were allocated.
Beets and cabbage dominate my mental image of Russian cuisine, so I was surprised to find neither borscht nor shchi, a popular sauerkraut soup, on the menu. "Well, we don't have many Russians in town," explains Knizhnik, "so I didn't think I'd have many customers for borscht. I will make it for people if they call ahead a few hours and ask me. But what you are thinking of as Russian food is actually Soviet food, and they are two different things. Before the Russian Revolution, our food had more variety and was more Continental, influenced by French, German and Italian cuisine, or even by Chinese or Japanese or Turkish, depending on where you live in Russia. So I just try to take all this together to make my own idea of Russian cooking."
Even the bread basket was heaped not with the sturdy black rye I expected but with refined white French bread. The waitstaff keeps a close eye on that bread basket, too, rushing to bring a second before the first is half emptied. "That is the worst thing in Russia, to run out of bread, because people eat so much of it with their meals," our guide explained approvingly. "A good restaurant will never let you run out of bread."
We were allowed plenty of time between courses to eat the bread and study the menu. "It's supposed to be that way. You're supposed to stay a long time at the table," my friend whispered. Apparently it's also acceptable for waitstaff to place used silverware on the tablecloth...
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