October 12, 2010

Foodents: At Russian Tea Time, Food Eats You!

Open your eyes. You’re in a room. Overweight women and their companions surround you, eating tea cakes from surprisingly tall platters. The atmosphere is one part moth-eaten overcoat, one part grandma’s condo, and one part really good vodka. The bathrooms are filled with obscure Soviet propaganda and disreputable plumbing. Nobody is smoking, but it feels like everybody is. There’s a man in the back wearing a red, skintight (simply due to his aggressive fatness) Run-D.M.C.–esque tracksuit. He’s clearly a regular.

Your food is late, but you don’t really seem to notice. Time is slowing down. You look at the bar and the bartender tries to say hello to you in Russian, then in English, then in louder Russian, and then in really loud Russian. Suddenly everybody is having tea except for you. The platters have boxed you in. You are sitting in a prison lined with inaccessible treats. You envy Tantalus. This is roughly what you can expect at Russian Tea Time.

Russian Tea Time is a restaurant that you’ve probably passed but have never considered going into because of the high velvet-to-space ratio. Like many “good” restaurants, the majority of available surfaces are covered in velvet. Red velvet, to be exact. The relationship between the amount of velvet and the cost of stroganoff is definitely directly proportional.

But don’t let the velvet scare you away, because in the upper echelons of American gastronomy, velvet means quality, and quality is exactly what you get at Russian Tea Time. When you finally, with pale and shaking hands, pass the check back to your engagingly professional waiter, you are so full and so disoriented that you are not entirely sure whether you have paid for a meal or for a conversion.

It is Thursday. You’ve been shopping for cheap furniture, exotic spices, and fish for hours. As you enter the restaurant, conversation dies. The revolving door has thrust you through the Iron Curtain, and it isn’t until you’ve been seated and served thick, dark, delicious bread that you realize how entirely the day’s humor has vanished. Conversation turns to death, dads, and shattered dreams. Childhood and childhood’s end. Lonely towns with empty storefronts. You’re filled with holes. You’re all filled with holes.

There’s one clear remedy. Very rich, very large, and very dense Slavic food. In this light, you can barely tell what you are eating. And in this mood, you hardly care. You turn away for an instant and your gold-rimmed mug is mysteriously refilled with black currant tea the color of blood.

The food is sort of presented the way ice cream is: fashioned in half-spherical scoops of varying colors and consistencies. There are meat dumplings, stuffed mushrooms, carrot salad, beet caviar, hummus, tabouleh, and vinaigrette salad. And everything’s delicious.

But why is it so delicious? It’s unfathomable because everything about the food says it shouldn’t be delicious. It’s mushy, but it’s mushy in a way that lets your tongue absorb every possible flavor, every spice, and every heretofore unfathomed texture. And why do carrots, with fennel and cloves, all shredded into a sort of nacho-cheese-like topping, work so bloody well together? In fact, why does everything (seriously, everything) taste so good together?

It doesn’t matter what potentially ill-advised combinations you thrust down your gullet and in what proportions—this food is the gastronomical equivalent of assembling IKEA furniture, making it frighteningly difficult for even the most inexperienced eater to go astray.

It is all extremely good and extremely tasteful, in a dark, secretive, and significant way. It's like finding a box of letters from a dead loved one in an attic, the uncharted deeps, or about the first two-thirds of the plot of Jumanji.

Soon, your man in the three-piece (your waiter, in other words) asks if you want the first course taken away. Of course you say no. And then, almost by some Faustian bargain without a downside, the next course materializes. A ring of stuffed cabbage, Moldovan meatballs, chicken pozharski, rice pilaf, and kasha hillocks surrounds a fat, imposing mountain of stroganoff. The dish seems to flash you a coy glance and whisper, “Dare you climb me?”

You walk out stunned and promptly forget it even happened. An inexplicable mood of fulfillment hangs around for about a week.

Highly recommended. Appetizers: meat dumplings, stuffed mushrooms, beet caviar. Entrées: Moldovan meatballs, beef stroganoff, chicken pozharski. And of course, the tea. Go for the black currant. In addition, the Russian Tea Time Platter for Two is about the best decision you can make when wanting to sample food east of the Curzon Line. It’s $52. Bring a date. Just a thought.

Farewell, stay well, eat well.