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...
But anyway, around 9:30, the main act began warming up: two elegantly coiffed and cocktail-suited singers, Zoya Griffen and Rosa Kavalerchik, both stylishly perched atop ankle-wrenching high-heeled pumps. After ratcheting down the air-conditioning another 20 degrees or so, the ladies launched into a galloping amplified rendition of "Those Were the Days" -- or at least that's what we thought it was, but my Kazakh informant and his wife swore it was really an old gypsy road song. Flashing red and blue lights blazed to life overhead, and the young man glided his statuesque senorita onto the dance floor.
Knizhnik's interpretation of Russian cuisine does include what he calls vareniki, but which some argue are actually pelmeni. The difference between the two seems to be whether the points of the dumpling are curved crescentlike to meet, as these do. Whichever they are, these little Siberian bundles look like close cousins of Chinese dim sum dumplings, and were my favorite item -- and quite a bargain at $7.50 for a dozen or more nestled in a deep china bowl. A light noodle dough of flour and egg yolks is wrapped around minced veal and simmered in hot water, then topped with a tangy, tomatoey red dressing enlivened with chili sauce and balsamic vinegar, garnished with fresh grated Parmesan and sprinkles of fresh green herbs, basil and cilantro. I know already that this is a dish that will haunt me, for which I will develop sudden and unpredictable cravings that nothing else will satisfy.
Other entrees do lean more toward the Continental, as in the seared salmon over pasta ($14), a thick, rosy slab of perfectly cooked, flaking-under-the-fork salmon steak lightly basted with a white wine and cream sauce, poised atop a mountain of thin vermicelli. The crusty grilled pork chop ($12.50) was thick and tasty, simply seasoned with salt and fresh black pepper, but inexplicably accompanied by a rough-cut pile of french fries instead of the promised mashed potatoes. Our friend speared one of the fries with his fork and, with a flourish, held it up for our inspection. "This is not Russian," he proclaimed. "But it's good."
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The tables around us began to fill with a younger, sleeker clientele, and the kitchen began to stagger beneath the load, intermittently managing to squeeze out only two or three orders at a time. One of the singers crooned a romantic ballad in honor of the birthday matron, a really sad ditty; if I understood my friend's shouted translation, it concerned an artist who gave his life to fill his lover's street with roses, millions of roses.
Finally our fourth plate arrived with a flourish. Although enormous portions seem to be the rule at Stoli, this special shish kabob ($22), also known as shashlik, was the hugest by far. Our waiter had suggested it instead of the rack of lamb on the regular menu, which was missing in action that night. It turned out to be thick lamb chops cut from the AWOL rack, marinated in red wine and onion juice and impaled along with massive chunks of onion and red pepper on a startlingly long blade like a cossack's sword. The waiter rushed to remove the meat and vegetables from the wicked-looking skewer before anyone was maimed.
The dance floor got more crowded and, as if by magic, even more youthful, as the hour grew later and the din intensified. Five young women jumped up to join an energetic Armenian circle dance, snapping their fingers overhead as the dark-haired Russian youth slowly did splits to retrieve a linen napkin from the floor with his teeth. We contented ourselves with slabs of whipped-creamy tiramisu ($5), delicately golden on top, and cups of excellent dark coffee, and over the noise companionably roared at each other across the table.
Stoli Grill, 13148 Memorial Drive, (713)932-1336.