Chefs stretch to find Russian flavor

February 19, 2003|By Liz Atwood

When the leaders of the Baltimore arts community decided to hold a city-wide celebration marking the 300th anniversary of St. Petersburg, Russia, local chefs were eager to join in the festivities by offering Russian dishes at their restaurants.

But they had a question: Just what do Russians eat?

Some turned to cookbooks and the Internet for answers while others asked residents of the Russian-Jewish community in Pikesville for their menu suggestions.

Petit Louis Chef Karen Diener called upon her memories of living in St. Petersburg for eight months while she was in college to create a menu featuring pierogis, a beet salad and blinis. Max Furman, owner of Max's on Broadway, sought advice from a Pikesville grocer in choosing to offer kielbasa, salted dried fish and other Russian foods in a space next to his restaurant that has been turned into a Russian pub and named Max's of St. Petersburg.

Some chefs opted for a broader interpretation of Russian cuisine. At Gertrude's at the Baltimore Museum of Art, for example, the menu is a melding of Russian with African-American cuisine featuring dishes such as Fried Chicken Kiev with kale and sweet potato hash.

At the Austin Grill, the chefs invented the Gorbachev Gordito (containing steak, shrimp, grilled vegetables with mashed potatoes on the side) and vodkaritas (Margaritas made with vodka).

Although participating in the festival activities has meant chefs have stretched their menus and struggled to pronounce strange-sounding dishes, they seem to be having fun.

"It's a great opportunity," said Donna Crivello, owner of Donna's Coffee Bar and CafM-i in Mt. Vernon, which is serving Russian soups and an appetizer. "People always love to celebrate with food."

"I've always dabbled in a lot of different cuisines," said Scott Brittingham, executive chef at the Hyatt. "It's part of what I do as a chef."

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