150 West 57th Street (between 6th & 7th Aves.)
On the highly anticipated opening night of the Russian Tea Room, doormen amiably guarded the red carpeted-entrance of the famed institution. As I passed through the original revolving door, it was like entering a time warp, a return to the 1980’s when women still wore hats and men suited up for a formal dining affair. I took pause at the bar to observe a small crowd of well-dressed tourists and grown ups, who had gathered to catch a glimpse of the newly reinvented 80-year-old institution. Aside from the notably absent Tiffany stain-glassed ceiling, the first floor dining room remains essentialy intact: dark green-painted walls with gold trimming, kitschy light fixtures adorned with red Christmas tree bulbs, antique Russian samovars and bright red leather booths, all evoked a perpetual holiday glow. While I could do without the bright lighting and the gimmicky, Christmas tree bulb-decked chandeliers, the space celebrates an old world charm that seems all but lost on NYC’s 21st century, industrial chic restaurant scene.
Though pricey caviar and imported vodkas are still flowing in abundance at this midtown haunt, Chef Gary Robins (of the recently defunct Biltmore Room) does his best to modernize the formerly dated menu, imparting a contemporary pan-global spin, with a definitive Russian slant. Braised rabbit, pork tenderloin, venison and goose breast carpaccio pepper the game-laden menu. I dabbled in a highly-flavored goat cheese and wild mushroom blinchiki; topped off with wild mushrooms, warm goat cheese, melted onions and succulent duck confit were all blissfully tucked into a supremely thin, doughy crepe.
The foie gras pelmeni was an arresting arrival; delicate foie gras raviolis afloat in a pool of rich oxtail broth, then dotted with autumn root vegetables and braised chanterelles. I grew weak in the knees as our waiter lifted the clutch from the dish, releasing Burgundy truffle-scented vapors into the room. If the grown ups weren’t out in full force, I would’ve picked up the bowl and lapped up every last drop of this gloriously decadent broth, so soothing that I would opt for this oxtail broth over Carnegie Deli’s chicken soup anyday.
Awaiting our entrees, I sipped a satisfying Boyer Imperial, stolichnaya vodka gently spiked with a cherry brandy liqueur. In keeping with the holiday spirit, the molasses-glazed duck breast is likened to a Thanksgiving dinner plate. A luscious, thick skin enveloped a moist, succulent duck breast, was poised on an inspired fennel-pear puree, served with a young turnip gratin, pleasingly spiced cranberries and buckwheat pilaf. Sadly, the sour cream poached maine lobster didn’t fare as well as the duck. While I enjoyed a fluffy cauliflower flan accompaniment, topped off with a generous dollop of caviar, I was disappointed by the chewy and slightly over-cooked lobster meat, perched on a bed of braised leeks and fennel. Even a zesty wash of lobster bisque couldn’t save the lobster dish from a tragically bland fate.
I capped off the festive evening with a contently cloying, honey crisp apple tart. It arrived warm, accompanied by a creamy Tahitian vanilla ice cream, drizzled with a calvados caramel sauce. While still paying proper respect to the Russian history of this theatrical New York fixture, Gary Robins has seamlessly managed to lift the cuisine to new culinary heights, imparting contemporary global influences and his own, distinctly innovative style, into even the most classic dishes. If Robins has anything to do with it, the Russian Tea Room will last another 80 years, finally lifting the curse from this well-preserved establishment.
Until we eat again,
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