What is Russian cuisine? Caviar and blini, yes, but what else? To my mind, borscht, mushrooms, pickles, beef stroganoff, meat and cheese pies and dough pockets, anything with buckwheat, and almost anything with sour cream. Does Moscow Nights serve Russian food? It serves borscht, mushrooms, pickles, beef stroganoff, vereniki and pelmeni, blini (presumably of buckwheat), and bowls and bowls of sour cream. It does pretty well. (The blini come only with Russian black caviar, though -- $19.50 an ounce.)
Moscow Night's cavernous room doesn't feel particularly Russian. Short of peppering the room with samovars, it's hard to know how to make warm and charming what looks like a Las Vegas nightclub. We went on a weekday night, intending to miss the amplified electronic music played on weekends. In the quiet, we enjoyed the rain that poured down the outer panes of a wall of modern greenhouse-looking windows, and watched with pleasure an unusually varied group of fellow diners, some in leather and punk-rock hair, others in suits, a few speaking Russian.
We noted that the bread was excellent, the free shot glass of vodka and saucer of salmon caviar were festive, the well-intentioned service staff was American, the wine list was short (one red and one white, but there were 16-ounce-or-so bottles of likable Moscova beer), and the tablecloths and plain, cushioned chrome chairs were more than adequate.
To a menu reader, Moscow Night's appetizers sounded more ethnic than its entrees did. Cold ones included herring fillets with new potatoes and scallions ($5.95), pickled, spiced vegetables ($4.90), Georgian sausages and salamis ($6.75), marinated mushrooms ($3.90) and an assortment of jellied meats ($7.25). Among hot appetizers were Armenian-style lamb with vegetables, apples and prunes ($5.95), and lamb with peppers, mint and saffron ($5.75).
Because we were most interested in what was most foreign, we ignored such American-sounding suggestions as seafood-stuffed avocado ($7.95) and steamed mussels ($6.95), in favor of vereniki ($6.90), pelmeni ($6.90), potato cakes ($5.25) and a bowl of barley soup ($2.50). We liked all four.
The vereniki were circles of pasta hand-folded into crescents around a filling of mashed potato and cheese. In looks, they resembled Chinese gyoza or Italian agnolotti. The size of the serving was generous and tastes were simple and comforting, down to the deliciously small amount of butter that glistened at the bottom of the bowl.
Pelmeni were similar, but juicier with a meat filling, more delicate because of a thinner dough, and smaller and plumper from being formed in a special metal frame that turns out what look like hexagonal pillows. Butter mixed with a small amount of meat broth made a thin-coating sauce.
Mashed potato cakes tasted, as one of my companions remarked, like something his mother used to make 30 years ago (said as a compliment): two handsomely browned, thick potato cakes filled with ground beef and chopped onions and mushrooms, and served -- as were the vereniki and pelmeni -- with a bowl of sour cream. Who doesn't love sour cream? It also enriched the barley soup, which was an appealing mixture of that humble, lumpy, fat little grain with onion, celery, carrot, dill, tomato and a good broth.
The garden lettuce, romaine, carrot and cucumber of our dinner salads were wonderfully fresh. Thick, American-style dressings were served separately. We liked being able to choose to eat some of the vegetables plain.
So much sounded American, we had a harder time finding specifically Russian entrees, but Georgian shashlik ($12.50), beef stroganoff ($11.50), chicken Kiev ($11.50) and chicken tabaka ($12.50) filled the bill.
Served with potato, the shashlik were unremarkable beef squares, marinated maybe, but not in interesting juices or spices. Beef stroganoff was thick with tomato, sour cream and, to our surprise, matchstick potatoes. French fries are traditional with stroganoff, but adding them to the sauce was odd. The combination tasted as if it had been cooked well ahead, but still it was appetizing.
Chicken Kiev is, of course, a chicken breast rolled around a pat of cold butter. Hot, the butter spurts from its cave at the first cut of the knife. The menu had promised herbed garlic butter, so ungarlicked butter seemed flat, but the moist flesh and crisp edges of the chicken, the rice mixed with carrot, and the fresh squash were all very agreeable. The evening's premiere dish was chicken tabaka, named for a skillet that presses the chicken flat on the grill. It was a particularly successful dish, with juicy meat, a crusty surface and a vibrant accompanying hot sauce.
Desserts? A plate of pitiful cakes. Yet there was good decaffeinated coffee.
Next: Arnold & Company
Moscow Nights, Sutton Place, 1111 Park Ave., 669-7200
Hours: Dinner 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesdays to Sundays; Sunday brunch 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Accepts: /- *
Features: Russian cuisine
No-smoking area: Yes
Wheelchair access: Yes