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.