Restaurant Reviews

A Night in Old Moscow

I've spent a fair amount of time in Eastern Europe, but I haven't been anywhere like Svetlana since that night long ago when I went to a Red Army dine and dance club on a little side street near the Kremlin with a pal who'd used his father's Politburo ID to get us in. While dining at Woodlake Square's new Russian restaurant, I kept flashing back to that Cold War evening. I half expected to see the onion domes of Saint Basil's cathedral through Svetlana's fussy lace curtains and ruffled-edged, malachite-green drapes. At very least, I felt as if there should be double-pane windows, totally frosted over, with a howling blizzard raging beyond. Instead, the holiday-season traffic on Westheimer and Gessner crawled placidly by, and the temperature was Gulf Coast balmy.

This climatic dissonance is a little disconcerting, because just about everything on Svetlana's menu was developed over the centuries by cultures that spend about eight months of the year trying to keep people from freezing to death -- a concern the food reflects. There's nothing nouvelle about Russian cuisine. It takes a lot of calories to weather the climate that killed the territorial ambitions of both Napoleon and Hitler, and Eastern European chefs know how to pile them on. Consider, for example, the implications of a dish such as chicken skin with stuffing and chicken liver ($4.90) being only an appetizer.

Several other of Svetlana's appetizers reflect not only Russia's closeness to the Arctic Circle, but also the Jewish heritage of the restaurant's proprietors, the eponymous Svetlana Sheherbakova and her partners Lorisa Karkov and Yuriy Fisher. All three are originally from Odessa on the Black Sea. Karkov arrived in America almost 20 years ago, a refugee from the old Soviet Union, and her partners came to Houston in the past three years in the latest wave of Russian-Jewish immigration. The three Russians point out the Jewish origins of their gefilte fish ($4.90), mayonnaise-y eggplant and garlic "Israeli" salad ($4.50) that tastes almost Middle Eastern and Russian blintzes. The word "blintz" itself is Yiddish for pancake, and at Svetlana these basic crepes come served with a dollop of either red caviar ($16) or black caviar ($20). Unless you're especially fond of the briny taste of fish eggs, or the unfortunately lukewarm pancakes, best give them a pass. A better bet are time honored Russian specialties such as piroshki with meat ($1.50); this is a smaller, hors d'oeuvre version of a pirogi, the ubiquitous Eastern European pastry turnover that's normally served as an entree. Svetlana's rendition of the ground meat-stuffed pockets is a bit on the greasy side, but it's bland enough to suit those who hesitate to try unfamiliar cuisine.

In Russia, piroshki are sometimes served with borscht, the traditional beet soup. At Svetlana, the Ukrainian borscht ($4.50) needs no accompaniment. Though a number of visits, it remained true to its heritage: It was never the same twice -- and it was never less than spectacular.

In the old country, all that's required for a hearty soup to qualify as borscht are beets and a dollop of sour cream on top; other ingredients are up to the chef. Svetlana's version, served in the kind of stoneware crock often used for French onion soup, is rich and smoky tasting. It is thick with ice cube-size chunks of potato, ribbons of cabbage, onion, barley and lots of meat: sometimes beef, sometimes lamb, once even chicken. The Logman Uzbek-style meat soup ($4.50) is similarly wonderful. There's no false advertising here: When Svetlana's menu says meat, it means meat. The chunks of beef are huge, and the barley, onion, carrot and potato broth is thick with shreds of still more meat. Even the mushroom soup ($4.50) is sinfully rich. Any of these soups, together with a few slices of Svetlana's homemade egg bread and a cucumber and tomato salad ($4.50), easily makes a meal.

One lunchtime special, a crock of borscht served with potato vareniki ($6.50), is more than a meal. Vareniki are a traditional Ukrainian dumpling cooked in clear stock and sprinkled with stringlike shreds of sauteed onion. But when the soft, bland, pastalike dough is stuffed with pureed potato as it is here, the taste -- more like the absence of taste -- makes the dish's glue-y texture all the more noticeable. The substantial serving, though, gives diners plenty of opportunity to try to understand the specialty's popularity in Russia.

Small, Svetlana diners will quickly note, is not a concept found in the Russian culinary idiom. The entrees, served on the restaurant's lovely and unusual black-with-mauve-and-umber plates, are simply huge.

A familiar dish such as beef stroganoff ($14), for example, is presented on a charger-size plate amid a wealth of side dishes such as blanched cauliflower florets, cucumber-size broiled potato spears, a kind of rice pilaf with corn kernels, English peas and pineapple. Sometimes there's also white cabbage. The stroganoff itself is everything it should be. The thin slices of beef are tender and flavorful, and the perfectly sauteed mushrooms and onions peek through the rich blanket of sour cream sauce. There is no Western served-over-rice heresy here. The stroganoff stands alone, as it was meant to.

The chicken in Svetlana's chicken Kiev ($14.50) is tender white meat wrapped around chopped parsley and about a pound and a half of butter, then rolled in bread crumbs and sauteed in still more butter. If this doesn't define the word rich, nothing does. Those worried about their triglycerides might consider the chicken shish kebab instead. At $12.50, it's a large serving of tender, skewered poultry chunks. The lamb version ($14), while a bit salty for my taste, is equally good.

The "Moscow Style" sturgeon ($18) isn't. Unless you're really into the Eastern European ethnic thing, stay away from it. The steak-size serving of Russia's much-prized freshwater fish topped with mild white cheese and red bell pepper in a light tomato sauce sounds interesting, but it tastes terribly tough and fishy. It comes surrounded, filet mignon style, in an overpoweringly oily fish-skin wrapper and contains large chunks of bone.

Desserts ($2.50) include something that the waitstaff, still learning English, will tell you is apple pie. It's actually a kind of strudel and is, at best, okay. The "cake," again a victim of the language problem, is a much better bet. It's a tortelike concoction with stratified layers of ladyfingers and Bavarian cream under decorative chocolate icing.

The real icing on the Svetlana dining experience, though, has nothing to do with food. Many Houston restaurants have uniformly fine menus -- something that can't honestly be said of Svetlana's uneven, if frequently interesting, fare. But this place does offer something perhaps equally important: a truly unique atmosphere. It is one of the few spots in Houston that presents live music at both lunch and dinner. The tiny house band led by Alexander Fisher, father of one of the owners and a violinist/pianist of some 40 years experience, is well worth listening to. There is a small dance floor, and the clientele uses it. But the band members don't stay on the stage, they also stroll around. Some may find it unsettling when the musicians stand right at your table and play soulful Russian ballads just for you. Personally, I find it lovely -- especially when they play "Moscow Nights."

Svetlana, 80 Woodlake Square (Westheimer and Gessner), 785-1418.

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Joanne Harrison