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May 14, 2007 - by Richard Jay Scholem
Most restaurants merely offer food. The reopened Russian Tea Room offers an adventure. This fabled, 80-year-old symbol of old New York is as resplendent as ever as new owners have recreated the grandeur of bygone days. Its gold ceiling, green walls, and red leather banquettes still create a Christmas-every-day feeling. Add gleaming gold samovars, bold original art, antique clocks, massive center-of-the room bouquets, and exotic flowers floating in tiny, water-filled dishes on every table and you have a truly beautiful restaurant (one that now serves breakfast, as well as lunch and dinner, daily).
All who enter sense that this is something special before they reach the dining room, when they are greeted by an elaborately uniformed doorman in a full-length red coat with gold piping and a high hat.
Inside, the multinational waitstaff sports gold-buttoned Russian military-style jackets and elevators that whisk diners downstairs to the restrooms or upstairs to one of the other three dining rooms. The second floor still features the 15-foot revolving glass aquarium and the striking Fabergé-like tree of Venetian glass eggs added in 1995 by then-owner Warner Le Roy.
Established in the 1920s by members of the Russian Imperial Ballet as a tea-and-pastry spot frequented by émigrés and the art community, it became a full-service restaurant during WWII. In 2007, it still boasts an unmistakably Russian identity with its 40 vodkas, caviar tasting, and classic throwback dishes like borscht, mushroom and eggplant a la Russe, beef Stroganoff, chicken Kiev, and blintzes. But it’s also a contemporary restaurant with lighter fare (tuna tartar, market salad, skate wing, etc.) and American favorites like Maine lobster salad and center-cut pork chops.
From the array of delicate and hearty possibilities, we chose starters of braised rabbit pelmeni and zakuski, or Russian hors d’oeuvres. The tender pelmeni (tiny, tasty dumplings) are good and the foie gras and carrot salad flavored sherry consommé that surrounds them is memorable. The diverse hors d’oeuvres (oyster, lobster, rabbit spring pea soup) offers a survey course in Russian tidbits.
The chicken Kiev, with its foie gras and herb sweet butter, was all it should be, as was a medium-rare seared breast of duck given interesting spins by its pear, purple Romanesco, and cognac gastrique accompaniment.
A molten chocolate cake paired with banana-passionfruit sorbet was fine, but the two Tea Room blintzes, filled with cherries and cheese, were fluffy, soft, gossamer revelations.
150 W. 57th St. at Seventh Ave., 212-581-7100; www.russiantearoomnyc.com
Richard Jay Scholem was a restaurant critic for the New York Times' Long Island section for 14 years. His A La Carte column appeared from 1990 to 2004. For more “Taste of the Town” reviews, click here.
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