A Moscow Kind of Melancholy
1758 University Ave. St. Paul; (651) 646-4144
Hours: 11:00 a.m.-3:00 p.m. Tuesday-Friday
Remember the good kind of sad? When people got the frosty-morning blues, moved on to the Chicago-bound blues, and finally wrapped up with a good round of the midnight blues that hurt so good? Seems like, sometime or other, in this here world ringed round with Treatment and Choirs, sad became unadmittable. A synonym for depressed. A treatable malady. Who signed off on this?
There's a good-sad out there still. I know there is, I catch hints: When women retire to their rooms with a copy of Little Women and a box of Kleenex; whenever Carmen is staged; the fact that all the copies of Ice Castles haven't been burned. And yet, I don't know why there is a good-sad. I've been puzzling over it all day. It seems counterintuitive. It seems like if you want happy, you'd fight like hell to stay out of sad. But it doesn't work like that. Somehow, going into sad helps you deal with actual real-life sad, or erases numbness, or provides catharsis, or does something.
Obviously, I'm out of my depth. But there is something so palpably sad, sad, sad--and resonant and touching and affirming somehow--about the Russian Tea House in St. Paul's Midway neighborhood that to not mention it would be ridiculous.
It could have been that every time I was there it was pouring rain and everyone was huddled over wooden tables eating borscht from foam bowls while a man in a Greek fishing cap sat in a straight-backed chair, summoning sad, haunting songs from a black and shining accordion. One memorable afternoon I myself had a lunch of borscht, cookies, and tea while the black rain turned University into a shallow river, Sunrise, Sunset filled out the air, and I watched a boy struggle mightily for three or four minutes trying to get a broken Big Wheel up the steps of the 16A bus--for me now the epitome of good-sad.
Youngsters like me know the Russian Tea House primarily as the place that's had the intriguing "closed" sign in the window for the past two years. Whenever you drove by you got the feeling you had just missed it by a few minutes. Turns out that the place was fully closed for two years, but not a day went by without a customer trying to get in. "When we opened in 1978 we were the first Russian fast-food carryout place in the country," says Nikolai Alenov, who runs the restaurant with his wife Linda Alenov. "A fast-food magazine came in from New York or whatever to write about it. It was me, my wife, and my mother. I learned all the cooking and all the recipes from my mother, Olga. Our specialty was Russian piroshki--Russian hamburgers." The Alenovs initially served these ground-beef, rice, and cheese ovals wrapped in dough and deep-fried, but eventually the demands of good health won out, and nowadays they offer only the baked version. If you've ever had the classic Russian salmon dish koulibiac, these piroshki are basically koulibiac, with its classic wrapping of a buttery, eggy, brioche-like dough here filled with a very understated beef mixture. "There's a little sharp cheddar cheese in there," says Alenov. "When a real Russian comes in here, a real Russian says that's not traditional. But I say if Russia had had a lot of sharp cheddar cheese around, they would have put it in; people love it.
"We sell piroshki fresh and frozen, mostly to customers from the neighborhood businesses around here," Nikolai Alenov continues. "There are so many kids that come in now, from Highland Park or Cottage Grove. They say, 'I was raised on your Russian hamburgers! The freezer was full of them.'"
While Nikolai Alenov was raising a generation on piroshki, just next door his brother Pete Alenov was vending rare guitars to their pop idols: "We'd see George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan walking by the window of the Tea House. But then, my brother had a car accident and died, and we had to sell off a few hundred guitars. We had to learn a whole new business. So we closed the Tea Shop for two years, and put that sign in the window. But you know, people stopped by and called every day for two years. They just wouldn't stop. They kept encouraging us to open up again."
The couple reopened the restaurant in February, and, says Alenov, "They're all just coming right back again. It's just amazing. We didn't realize the thousands of people we knew. Our customers are like friends. Oh boy, is it busy every day."
Busy with customers stacking up for the vegetarian borscht ($1.65 a bowl; $4.90 a quart), a distinctive, sweet version made with lots of beets, carrots, and beans. Or those piroshki ($2.80 hot and fresh, six for $13.50 frozen), which seem to light on every tray. There's a cabbage roll--a ball of ground meat and rice on a bed of stewed cabbage ($2.80) covered with a garlic-accented tomato sauce. And varaniki, incredibly tender potato-filled dumplings ($1.90). On Fridays you can even get a wildly popular ground-beef version of beef stroganoff for $4.
Overall, I'd call the food more Minnesota church basement than Russian. I kept wanting to add herbs and spices to everything, but the Alenovs readily concede their cooking is aimed at longtime Midway residents, not Russians. "There is sour cream (25 cents) available for the borscht," says Alenov, "but we hardly have any Russians here, mostly people who have been eating our food for 15 or 20 years, and they tend to shy away from sour cream, and really anything with fattiness or cholesterol. For the piroshki, I get extra-lean ground beef and cook it down to eliminate the fat. That's what my customers like."
Perhaps, but when I come back I'll get the borscht with sour cream, and a couple of tasty, super-buttery powdered-sugar-coated walnut-butter cookies (75 cents for two, $1.55 for a bag of five) and tuck in to a table upstairs to watch the rain and listen to the Friday accordion and watch the rain.
Yes, I know, sometimes it doesn't rain. But you've been here this spring. You know what it was like. The music does get sadder in the rain. "When it's been raining for a couple days like this it's hard not to play only those haunting minor-key tunes up here," admits Dick Rees, the man of the heavy-hearted accordion. "The air is so damp and thick, the acoustics become really good. I find I compose a lot when the air is like this. It begins to feel like the world itself is more introspective, full of possibilities--pregnant."
Rees's accordion tunes add immeasurably to the air of rich fecundity. Listen for a Danish waltz, like one called Moonbeams Clear, a Finnish tune like Metsakukkia, or old standards like April Showers (ha!). Rees also pointed out something I never noticed before, namely that "just about every European immigrant group that came to Minnesota had either the accordion or the concertina as the cornerstone of their music--the Italians, French, Germans, Polish, Scandinavians, Lithuanians, the list goes on. In fact, one day I was up here playing a waltz I know as Russian, called Midnight in Moscow, and a Chinese woman who was eating here leapt up and said, 'That's Chinese!' And she sang the song for everyone in Chinese."
Rees, who also hosts KFAI's "Scandinavian Cultural Hour" on Wednesday nights, has been coming to the Russian Tea House ever since he got off the bus a stop early one time in the late Seventies, came in to see what he could see, and fell in love with the food. He's been part of the Friday scene here on and off for the last decade, and if you've got a request, he will play it. And if he plays it in the rain, the air will make it seem sad, as will the big sign outside advertising Pete's Guitars, the big dark pine tree towering out the windows, and the people stacked up at the drive-through in the adjoining Wendy's parking lot, having ordinary hamburgers that don't lead you to feel much of anything when they could be having Russian ones.
I'M IN SHOCK: "You're in shock. You're speechless. I'm sure a lot of folks will be speechless. Hello? Hello!" The words echoed in my ears, finding no purchase. The world swam before my eyes. Steve Vranian was on the phone, telling me he just took over the kitchen at Murray's. Vranian, probably Minnesota's most important California-cuisine chef. Vranian, of the eye-popping résumé who cooked back in the day in important "New American Cuisine" kitchens like the Fourth Street Grill and Stars with the biggest bigwig chefs there were, people like Mark Miller and Jeremiah Tower. Native Minnesotan Vranian, who came back here a few years ago to cook at the California Café, and who lately had been the regional executive chef for the company that owns the California Cafés and Napa Valley Grilles.
Murray's--the home of the silver butter-knife steak! The watered-silk-and-Jackie-O-chandeliered, highly beloved fossil where they serve garlic toast so salty you'll have to order eight martinis to wash it down, next to steaks so big they could serve as carpet, or support eight martinis.
Or what I'm saying is, Murray's has hired a chef who cooks--grab hold of doorframe, close one eye to block dizziness--vegetables. Fancy, baby, organic vegetables. "Pat Murray hired me because he said Murray's has got to get into the new millennium," says Vranian. "Physically, organizationally, spiritually, emotionally, everything." Meaning: Décor-wise, a big renovation in early 2002; menu-wise, they'll keep the big favorites like the silver butter-knife steak, but lose a lot, improve a lot, add fish, and even, yes, vegetables. What will happen? Will a Murray's Liberation Front of guerillas spring up and set fire to bales of radicchio outside on Sixth Street? Will Murray's suddenly become a player in the downtown Minneapolis high-stakes-chef-pocket now formed by Aquavit, Goodfellow's, and D'Amico Cucina? I see you're in shock. Hello? Hello! Murray's, 26 South Sixth St., Minneapolis; (612) 339-0909.
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