If my Russo-German grandmother were to visit me in New York, I would take her to Russian Samovar. I first visited the midtown restaurant and piano bar lounge in 2009. As a child, I’d experienced Russian cuisine primarily through my grandmother’s cooking, yet she set an idiosyncratic table. Born to a German family in Russia, her childhood was peripatetic. Oma – she prefers the German honorific – eventually settled in the United States, where she learned to cook. She observed chefs and line cooks in commercial kitchens where she worked, and recreated her mother’s dishes from the tasty memories of her childhood. A consequence of my Oma’s roundabout journey is that her cuisine is very personal, with many dishes inherited, but reinterpreted.
At Russian Samovar I experienced authentic Russian cuisine in a whole new way. The menu is filled with traditional dishes, like borscht and vareniki, along with classics like Beef Stroganoff. Upon arriving, the entrance descends to a garden-level bar, with the piano and dining room extending behind it. The room is done up glamorously, with shiny red benches lining the walls. It’s lit dimly from hanging tasseled lights, in two colors. Elements like white linens and golden tea cups promise an elevated experience, with enough fussiness to honor a special-occasion dinner.
I happened to be dining on January 7th, which is Christmas for the Russian Orthodox church. The dining room was lively and festive, filled with a mix of New Yorkers and out-of-towners. Many conversed in Russian, both with the service staff and each other. As you’d expect at a piano bar, a variety of music acts performed over the three hours I was there, including a solo piano player, a piano–bass duo, and a third group that included a singer. Great American Songbook classics were intermixed with Russian songs, including a poppy rendition of “V lesu rodilas elochka,” the Christmas-tree song I sang as a child. The vibe around the white baby grand piano – lovingly donated to the restaurant by notable patron and New Yorker, Mikhail Baryshnikov – was convivial and relaxed.
The service was fairly relaxed, too. At one point, sensing the antics of a large party across from us, the house brought out a big collection of hats, including a hard hat, a school-girl hat with ribbons, and a Cossack hat. The group duly posed for goofy pictures.
Vodka is of course, the national drink of Russia, and infusing vodka for flavor and color is a Russian tradition. Russian Samovar offers more than 20 house-infused flavors available by the glass or in a flight. My companion and I sipped rather than shot the six vodkas in our sample flight. They didn’t arrive labeled, and I thought from the scents I’d easily identify them. I did this easily enough for the tarragon infusion, although I found it challenging for some of the others like a particularly appealing and flavorful selection which turned out to be ginger. The plum was the most complex: with a funky nose, smooth flavor, and some sweetness. The coriander ended up my favorite: enticing and bright.
Later in the meal we enjoyed two of the house cocktails. The Smoke & Fire resembled a spicy margarita. But it was more spirit-centered, made from a pepper-infused vodka, and less sweet or sour than is typical. The Little Odessa blended Aperol and basil-infused vodka. The cocktails were well balanced and complemented the food. With dessert we sipped the Russian Delight, champagne touched with strawberry purée, which was sweet and lovely, my favorite of the evening.
From the extensive food menu I ordered the dishes I was most curious to try, along with a few classics. The seasonal soup was solyanka, a hearty broth of olive, sausage, and beef that complemented the dark rye bread and butter. From the trio of salads – two traditional for winter and one for summer – the shuba salad was the most interesting, comprised of layers of diced herring, hard-cooked egg, beet, potato, and onion. The kulebyaka was a delightful and hot salmon-filled pastry, with a light dill crême. Potato vareniki were delicious, topped with mushroom and onion and served with sour cream. For mains, we had spiced chicken with potatoes, which had good flavor and came with a tasty sauce. The short rib was attractively presented, and decent, if average. Dessert was a spiced sour-cream cake and tea – served with jam, like my Oma makes hers.
When the editor of Good Spirits News invited me to write this article, he was curious about a “then and now” story: what had changed at Russian Samovar since my first visit over ten years ago? At some point during my dinner, my server, a recent New York transplant from Russia, commented that “Russia never changes,” a punchline suitable for situations in her home country when, despite modern circumstances, the old ways prevail. It aptly described my two experiences. The vodka infusions, the traditional menu, the decor – Russian Samovar is giving the same excellent experience as they did a decade ago – continuing the time-honored traditions as when they first opened in the 1980s with a commitment to conviviality, values and the ornaments of home. Here, never changing is a good thing.
Russian Samovar Restaurant and Piano Bar, 256 W 52nd St, Midtown (New York, NY)
Review by Paul Melnikow for Good Spirits News