Roughing it with Russian food

January 13, 1995|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

Astoria, the new restaurant in Bolton Hill where Moscow Nights used to be, delivers an authentic Russian experience (judging, I must admit, from my one visit to Moscow and Leningrad 20 years ago). That is, however, a double-edged sword.

The dining room is very large and very empty when we walk in late one weeknight. It's set up for live music, dance floor and all, but at the moment the entertainment is taped '50s rock and roll: Piroshki to the strains of "Get a Job."

Our waitress is personable and accommodating, but there's a serious communications problem. After much discussion, we order blini (not with the black caviar for $37 but with creme fraiche for $4.50), piroshki stuffed with potatoes, and meat dumplings, the Russian name of which I never catch. They are to be followed by soup for two of us and our main courses.

Except that the appetizers never arrive. We realize it's just not going to happen when we finish the soups, and the entrees are brought to the table. (One soup is a fabulous borscht; the other is solyanka, broth strongly flavored -- too strongly flavored -- with ham and decorated with black olives, lemon and parsley.)

The waitress is terribly apologetic about our first courses, or lack of them. "I thought you were just asking about them," she explains. She wants to know: Could she put in our order now? Somehow it seems too late.

So we dig into our main courses. The house specialty is shish kebab, which if it doesn't quite arrive on a sword produces an effect almost as dramatic. The waitress removes the big chunks of flavorful lamb from the enormous skewer with a flourish. They nestle up next to a great mound of heavily creamed mushrooms and a baked potato, creating a somewhat monotone platter.

Beef stroganoff has a truly wonderful sauce -- the kind of flavorful sauce that improves almost anything, but can't do much for the leathery pieces of beef. Rice and six rounds of zucchini garnish it.

My sturgeon isn't as fresh as it should be and has been cooked into oblivion, but it is nicely arranged on top of more creamed mushrooms. A large baked potato has been substituted for the promised "medallion potatoes."

Chicken Kiev is the most successful of our dishes. When we cut into the fat little boneless chicken breast the butter spurts out satisfyingly. There are more creamed mushrooms and rice on the side.

So on to dessert. Alas, the kitchen refuses to cook blinis this late (around 9) so we settle for that fine old Russian dessert tiramisu and a selection of small pastries that have sat in the fridge too long. I ask for Russian tea and am brought a cup of hot water and a Lipton tea bag.

None of that is as shocking, however, as getting the check for over $100 for four, which includes only two glasses of wine, no appetizers and no black caviar.

Astoria

Where: 1111 Park Ave.

Hours: Open Tuesday to Friday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 6 p.m.-10 p.m.

Credit cards accepted: MC, V.

Features: Russian food

Non-smoking section? Yes

Call: (410) 523-7170

Prices: Appetizers, $3.25-$11.95; entrees, $12.50-$17.25

**

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