LIL’ DUMPLINGS: The pierogies at Vernissage come with potato, meat, or cherry filling.
I was working on the Russian paradox, when it slapped me right in the column! What I refer to as the Russian paradox is the number of fashionable gastro-pubs in Boston specializing in small plates and drinks based on flavored vodkas, versus the near-zero crossover appeal of Russian restaurants that specialize in small plates and drinks based on flavored vodkas.
Vernissage | 1627 Beacon Street, Brookline | Open Tues–Fri, 5 pm–2 am; and Sat & Sun, Noon–2 am | AE, DI, DC, MC, VI | Full bar | No valet parking | Access up full flight of stairs | 617.566.3340
The slap was that I completed a two-star review of Café Samovar, in Brookline Village, just as said lack of crossover appeal was shutting down the restaurant. Proschai to Café Samovar. So I ended up in salvage mode, running around late on deadline eve, trying to put together a survey column on the four remaining Russian restaurants in Boston and surrounding towns: Samovar’s Brookline Village competitor, Stoli Bar & Restaurant; the former occupant of Samovar’s space, Café St. Petersburg, now in Newton Centre; Victor’s Café in Coolidge Corner; and Vernissage, a supper club upstairs from what was once the Russian Village gourmet store.
However, a dinner at Vernissage turned up an explanation for the Russian paradox. Like all the others, it has a predominantly immigrant clientele, but here they were having more fun than the immigrants at the other Russian restaurants I’ve reviewed. Because it was later than I usually dine, the music had started. Vernissage has a dancing space at the center of the upstairs dining room, and most of the patrons took to the floor once the two singers revved up their background tapes (and a little bit of live tenor sax) and started belting as the disco lights came on. Vernissage is really a supper club, as are most other Russian restaurants, especially on weekends. (Sunday night is part of the Russian weekend, and most Russian restaurants are closed Monday to recover.) If it isn’t the Bar Mitzvah–like mélange of show tunes and jazzed-up folk material we caught at Vernissage, it’s classical piano or various kinds of jazz. And Russians dance: old folks, little kids with their mothers and cousins, couples on dates. I imagine this is what a fun night out in Moscow 20 to 30 years ago was all about. It’s exactly what American youth culture is about avoiding: musically, culturally, and sociologically. What American twenty-something is going to get off the cell phone and dance with mom? What American Gen-Y-er is going to go out after work to knock back a couple of cranberry vodkas ($4) to a recorded big-band version of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”?
Although my father’s father was born in Russia, I’m several generations away from this kind of entertainment, yet nostalgic for the food. So that’s the pitch for these types of places, Phoenix readers: a cross-cultural experience more exotic than anything in Chinatown, with hearty Central European food, or small plates and cheap fake-tinis ($8).
We had good French bread and butter, then a spicy lamb soup ($7) to take any chill out of the evening. It was a little too salty and greasy, but full of the flavor of hacked-up lamb ribs and barley, with a strong onion base. Pierogies ($8) come with potato, meat, or cherry filling. I was a little surprised they weren’t vereniki or pelmeni, the more usual Siberian dumplings, but these were small and delicate turnovers filled with potato (our decision) and topped with sautéed onions and a dip of sour cream. Margarita salad ($12) is a fantastic invention: cucumber, fresh dill and parsley, onions, smoked salmon, and avocado. If you’re just having drinks, you may want something along the lines of the cold appetizer of smoked sturgeon ($12), which brought about six freshly cut slices only a little leaner than salmon, with lots of flavor.
Chicken Pozharsky ($15) is chopped chicken meat wrapped around mushrooms, and fried with a crust of shredded bagels. (Café St. Petersburg was one of the first to make it this way, and they still have it on their menu.) The sides on main dishes are a slaw of marinated cabbage and cranberries, and your choice of baked rice, steak fries, kasha, and my favorite: roast potatoes. They had been cooked a little too long, so it created a hint of caramelized flavor, similar to that which one gets by roasting vegetables in foil in the campfire.
Duck à l’orange ($17) was a half duckling, with a fine orange sauce and pieces of kumquat or apricot, as well as three slices of spiced crab apple, each with its own maraschino cherry at the center. Like the music, the garnishes are charmingly old-fashioned. Trout with almonds ($16) was a large and full-flavored filet, flattened and spread with a creamy sauce and covered with sliced almonds.