Moscow on the Bayou
The voluptuous, dark-haired belly dancer is putting on an astonishing exhibition of muscle control. And I thought wiggling one ear at a time was impressive. As her act nears its climax, Boris, one of my dining companions, turns to me with a sly smile and says, "The food at this restaurant is very good." The Russian Bear on Dairy Ashford near Westheimer does have very good Slavic food, but Boris finished his pelmeny and "Shashlik KGB" a good 15 minutes ago. I wonder what he's talking about.
The shashlik combination named for the former Soviet secret service included grilled chicken, beef and lamb which came to the table on kabobs with a side of rice pilaf. The chicken was a little dry, the beef was pleasant, but the lamb was a succulent standout. The cubes of meat are marinated, seasoned with garlic and then charred on skewers over charcoal. The elaborate technique brings out the earthy character of the lamb while rendering it incredibly tender and juicy. Boris's wife Sabina ordered the best dish in the house, a whole platter of the lamb shish kabob. And Sabina is suitably penalized for her good judgment by being forced to share her dinner with all seven of her raucous tablemates.
A marriage between a Croatian Catholic and a Bosnian Moslem would cause a lot of controversy in war-torn former Yugoslavia, but in ecumenical Houston, no one much cares. The odd couple split an order of pelmeny for an appetizer. Pelmeny are the Russian version of Chinese dumplings. They are stuffed with a garlicky ground beef mixture and served with a topping of sour cream.
A Russian once told me that pelmeny originated in Siberia where they were traditionally made in the beginning of the winter. As they were made, the dumplings were thrown into the snow to freeze. When they wanted dinner, the Siberians dug up some snow studded with pelmeny and boiled the whole mess in a pot on the stove.
Sabina finds the pelmeny filling a little too garlicky for her taste, so the rest of us scarf down her appetizer as well. My date and I are sharing an order of salmon caviar and blinis. The Russian crepes are soft as suede. They come folded into four triangles around the outside of the plate, with a large pool of orange salmon eggs and dollop of sour cream in the middle. We stuff forkfuls of caviar and sour cream into blini envelopes and wash it down with chilled Stoli.
A herring and potato appetizer comes with a soft and salty Russian-style herring that's very different from the pickled herring I'm used to. Another tablemate, however, is feeling nostalgic about it. "The herring is perfect, just like back home," he says. "But it's supposed to be served on boiled potatoes -- not french fries!" He orders the Russian cutlet for an entrée, which turns out to be a rolled breast of chicken browned in bread crumbs. "It's okay, but it's not a cutlet," he complains.
I get beef stroganoff for dinner, and it is clearly the worst entrée of the bunch. I barely eat any of the watery noodles and bland beef stew. Instead, I sample some of my date's salmon kabob. The fish is too well done, but the grilling gives it a nice flavor and there is still plenty of sour cream on the caviar plate to moisten it.
The restaurant gets louder and louder as the crowd becomes increasingly inebriated. The food may not all be perfect, but as I look around the table at my motley group of Slavic friends a delighted smile comes to my face -- this is exactly what I had in mind.
I first noticed The Russian Bear on my way home from a trip to Austin. I had encountered such horrendous traffic on I-10 coming into town, that I bailed out at the Dairy Ashford exit. Since my kids and I are inordinately fond of Slavic food, I figured we might as well have dinner while we waited for traffic to abate.
From the second we walked into the place, I felt like we had entered another country. The Cyrillic writing on the posters and the newspaper racks full of Russian papers set the tone. We were shown to our table by a young Russian woman who didn't speak much English. In fact, the whole staff was Russian. And they were all dressed in hokey red and gold tunics with metallic trim that looked like a cross between czarist-era folk costumes and something worn by the aliens on Star Trek.
Our waitress recommended the pelmeny and the borscht, which were both a big hit with the kids. The beet soup was the kind with julienned slivers of vegetables, rather than a smooth puree; I much prefer this heartier version of borscht. Ukrainian vareniky, large potato dumplings served slathered with sour cream, were a little bland.
The golubtsie, or Russian cabbage rolls, were met with extreme suspicion. Holupki is the word for stuffed cabbage in the Ruthenian dialect of my Slavic ancestors. I had not only taught my daughters how to pronounce it, I had taught them how to make it -- and the cabbage rolls set before us simply weren't holupki. Rather than the whole cabbage leaves we stuffed with lots of filling, the Russian Bear's Georgian chef cuts the cabbage into artful squares and rolls up a smaller amount of filling into a perfect cylinder.
"The meat-to-rice ratio in the filling is perfect," remarked my oldest. "And that's what most people get wrong. But they're so skinny!"
"Tastes great, less filling," I shrugged.
The cozy front dining room where we were seated featured wooden furniture and simple tablecloths, but I was intrigued by the completely different decor on the other side of the room divider. The Russian Bear is actually two dining establishments in one. The front room is a charming little cafe with home-cooked Russian food -- a wonderful place to take the kids. But in the exotic-looking nightclub on the other side, I could see red velvet curtains, huge mirrors and crystal chandeliers.
I fantasized a crowd of Slavic mobsters in dark suits and gypsy babes in low-cut evening gowns dancing under a spinning disco ball -- a Muscovite Moulin Rouge in a shopping center on Dairy Ashford.
The floor show begins as our entrées arrive. The first act is a guy in a gray-white Prince Valiant haircut singing along in Russian to a karaoke machine. If you have never seen this kind of Euro-pop lounge act before, you have missed a richly comic experience. The prince is joined at the mike for a duet by a zaftig woman spilling out of a clingy white off-the-shoulder dress. "She has an outie and she's wearing a thong, and I didn't want to know either one of those things," says one of my tablemates with a grimace.
People-watching and attendant comic commentary is the real entertainment at the Russian Bear nightclub. A group of senior American males seated with much younger women quickly gets labeled "the mail-order bride table." And my date speculates that the dark-haired guys in sport coats and blue jeans across the room are mafia hit men. The plush red upholstered booths furnished with privacy curtains are full of couples on illicit dates, according to another wag.
"This is just like a Russian nightclub, except more civil," observes our Russian companion. "People drink more in Russia, so there are a lot more fights."
At the table next to ours, a statuesque blonde in a low-cut dress passes around publicity stills of herself. There is much debate about whether or not her enormous breasts are natural or the work of a skilled plastic surgeon. And there's even more speculation about her large entourage. I guess that they might be in the blue movie business. Loreta, the Croatian sitting to my left, thinks they are Serbian war criminals. (Loreta is always on the lookout for Serbian war criminals.)
Our table is also doing its part to provide fodder for the gossip mill. Loreta can't resist the temptation of teasing her fellow Croat, Boris, who is wearing a black short-sleeved shirt with an open neck and a thick gold chain. "Look at Boris. This is the typical look for a Balkan man out on the town," she says. "Always with the open-necked shirt and the gold chains. Lucky for you we Balkan women find this look so attractive," she giggles. Loreta is married to Joe, an Italian-American who is looking resplendent tonight in leather pants and a shiny striped shirt imported from his native New Jersey.
When the lounge singer has taken his bow, a talented woman named Oksana presents folk dances with a male counterpart that meet with roars of approval. By the time the belly dancer takes the stage, she has no trouble whipping the room into a vodka-fueled frenzy.
At this point, you may be thinking that a quiet dinner in the calm cafe might be more to your liking. If so, come to The Russian Bear on a weeknight, or before eight on a weekend -- and congratulations on your good taste. If, on the other hand, you are a collector of bizarre dining experiences, I highly recommend the Russian nightclub dinner. Make a reservation, gather six or eight of your strangest friends, and come prepared to party.
After midnight, the crowd takes over the dance floor. Some of the more energetic young Russian girls are imitating the belly dancer's moves. The woman with the enormous bosom is being spun so crazily by her date that she seems in danger of losing control of her clothing. All eyes are riveted on her décolletage.
You don't talk about certain things in mixed company back home, Boris whispers to me. So in the Balkans, they talk in code. He nods toward the gyrating women on the dance floor and repeats, "The food at this restaurant is very good."
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