From St. Paul, With Love

Marisa Vargas

Moscow on the Hill
371 Selby Ave., St. Paul; 291-1236.

I often wonder what I would put on the menu if required to open an "American" restaurant in some far-off cosmopolitan center, like Moscow. Burgers and fries, of course, but what then? Gumbo and po' boys? Clam chowder and pumpkin pie? Pastrami sandwiches and cheesecake? California rolls and carrot juice? Tuna hot dish and lemon bars? What if customers ordered chili and a reuben at the same meal? Would I tell them not to, or let them order what they wanted and conclude that American food was impossibly at war with itself? And what if the traditions in my new land required elements Americans don't really do--say, a cheese course after dessert--would I provide it, even if I suspected I wasn't doing it perfectly? And what, then, if people judged me solely by my cheese course?

These are the sorts of issues that I imagine arise for most immigrants opening a restaurant. When Moscow natives Marina and Naum Feldman decided to turn the St. Paul standby Quail on the Hill into a Russian restaurant, they had an additional set of worries: They needed to maintain enough French food to please the Quail's dedicated customers. What has evolved is Moscow on the Hill, a remarkable spot where you can either experience a little bit of the famed Russian soul over vodka and blini while weeping along with classical guitar player Anatoli Shapiro--or rush in, order the Chicken Kiev, and vow never to return.

In order to have a really good time at Moscow on the Hill, you have to keep in mind that a big Russian celebratory meal is something meant to stretch over five to seven hours, during which you drink a wide variety of beverages, dance, sing, and snack on a large supply of bread and what we would think of as appetizers. (It's sort of akin to the Chinese tradition of dim sum--when dining out you ought to have all the delicacies it would be too much work to prepare at home.)

A Russian meal out is a full evening's activity, not made to be squeezed in before or after a movie or show. As Marina Feldman says in her hesitant English: "A Russian restaurant is supposed to be loud, loud with voices and laughing. Five hours later, seven hours later, you're done eating, drinking, dancing, and you feel warm and happy all over your body. You don't need to go somewhere afterwards, you just spend as much time with your friends as you can." She says she was initially shocked at how quickly American tables turn over: In this country, one table might seat four parties in one night. In Russia it's common for one party to remain at a table from open to close.

If you choose to eat the Russian way, start with some vodka. More than a dozen varieties are available, from the slightly grassy pure-wheat Moskovskaya to the full range of Stolichnaya flavors like honey-spice and lemon. My favorite is the "homemade" Chateau Marucya, in which cherries and other flavorings are soaked. It's a pretty pink and has a sweet bite. For the true Russian experience, full bottles of vodka can be ordered, ranging from a full imposing liter to a cutely tiny third of a liter. Having a waiter plant a bottle in the middle of the table seems particularly exotic--like something from the snow-covered mountains in Indiana Jones--and especially decadent. We are in the land of Perpetual Recovery, after all.

Follow your vodka with a bowl of Moscow on the Hill's delicious borscht ($3.50), a hot, robust, and deeply flavorful version of the beet-based classic; here the vegetable edge of the cabbage is mellowed by a chicken broth. (Don't succumb to the restaurant fear that everyone should order different dishes--in Russia everyone eats borscht every day, or thereabouts.)

Next, pick a variety of zakuski (appetizers). My favorites were the blini and the pickled-fish platter. Blini here are salad-plate-sized, super-fluffy buckwheat pancakes that come four to a plate with a serving of orange salmon caviar for $9. Or you can get two, filled with a creamy beef or chicken mixture, for $5.95.

The fish platter includes a variety of smoked or cured fish, including a luscious gravlax-like salmon fillet, cross-sections of a deliciously dense and meaty sea bass, tasty little golden smoked sprats, a soupçon of salmon roe, and some pickled mackerel slices that were a little tough for me. A platter of all these costs $21.95, or order your favorites à la carte: sea bass is $7.95; salmon $6; mackerel $5.10; sprats $4.25; and salmon caviar is no bargain at $10.

Along the fish continuum, the Russian herring--a fillet dressed with red-wine vinegar--is absolutely delicious, subtly garlicky, peppery, and sweet. The herring comes with pickled onions, sliced beets, black olives, and a pile of wonderfully crisp and puffy oven-browned new-potato quarters. For $4.20 this big plate is quite a bargain, too--just remember that Russian herring has the occasional bone.

The variety of homemade pickled vegetables ($4.95) changes often; I tried some fresh, super-crispy sauerkraut, sweet pickles, and pickled ripe Roma tomatoes, a Russian specialty that takes some getting used to. The choppy-textured country-style pâté is more like chopped liver, but good and deep with the taste of beef liver, and smoothed and lightened by goose liver. I'm not too wild about the artichoke hearts baked in a rich, buttery bechamel sauce and covered with a bubbly, cheesy crust ($5.25), or the pirogi ($3.50), which here are flaky pastries filled with a crumbly beef or mushroom-potato filling. Both reminded me of generic hotel-buffet food, though my dining companions all thought they were fine.

As you're sampling this intriguing array of treats, Anatoli will play his guitar continuously. And if it's a Friday or Saturday night, Sarah, a lovely Armenian chanteuse, sings along. Her powerful voice contrasts vividly with her fragile, even shy presence; she sings alone near the door, without microphone or stage, her vibrato gliding past the glittering vodka bottles and stirring that particularly Slavic heartbeat of rapturous melancholy. If you then segue from zakuski to dessert--like the lovely dessert blini, this time served warm, filled with sweet farmer's cheese and topped with jam--you'll emerge into the night feeling as though you've just returned from a vacation to old Russia, where hospitality, history, and joy reign forever.

Sadly, if you proceed to the entrées instead, you risk extreme disappointment. I can only surmise that the ultra-heavy Russo-French options were invented to satisfy Americans demanding a meat, a starch, and a vegetable on the plate. Too often the result is a behemoth like the Salmon White Knight ($13.95), a giant salmon fillet poached in white wine and topped with a pudding of extremely creamy white sauce beside a pallid rice pilaf and sautéed vegetables. Even a few bites of this dish are too much, and following a banquet of appetizers it's truly not possible to eat.

Other disappointments tend to evoke country-club Continental and a time before cholesterol. The Chicken Kiev ($12.95) is armor-breaded and slides obstinately around the plate, resisting capture by fork or knife. The Trout Po Moskovski ($14.50) is an unbelievable creation, a trout fillet (thankfully not a whole fish, as promised on the menu) breaded and fried, set in the bottom of a casserole dish layered with onions and potatoes, drenched with creamy, creamy cream sauce, and topped with cheese and baked 'til bubbly--trout au gratin. (There's also pork, chicken, and pelmeni--dumplings--au gratin.)

The best entrées are the simplest, like the Babushka Stew ($12.50), an uncomplicated clay-pot-cooked beef stew, and the Siberia Pelmeni ($11.75), a plain preparation of meat and onion dumplings served with a sour-cream sauce. The traditional Beef Stroganoff, steak simmered in a sour-cream mushroom sauce, is another good choice ($15.95), but if I were to order any of these again I would share. I can honestly say I was in love with Moscow on the Hill for every moment I was there, except when I was battling creamy entrées.

However, I'm willing to cut the Feldmans a little slack. They've created a little slip of Moscow style and soul out of nothing, and with every menu revision they get a bit closer to greatness. For example, the champagne cocktails, which Marina discovered while doing research on Khrushchev-era Moscow nightclubs, are a delightful addition; the Kremlin Stars (cognac, champagne, and lemon juice) is as tasty as it is fun to order. Once Moscow's big summer patio opens out back, nothing will keep me from dropping by for blini and champagne cocktails under the stars.

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Moscow On the Hill Restaurant

371 Selby Ave.
St. Paul, MN 55102


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