There's no obvious sign outside Hammer & Sickle, a Russian vodka bar and restaurant in the former Kinsen Noodle space in Uptown, but you definitely know when you've found it. Red light emanates from the building's overhangs, and the door handle is a wrought-iron hammer and sickle. If these thematic touches hit you over the head, one look at the menu will have you a little less convinced. Siberian dumplings, chicken Kiev, and golobtsi are all there, but a few items decidedly not from the old country — kobe beef sliders and shrimp cocktail — left us perplexed and more than a little wary. Were we going to get theme restaurant clichés without substance? Or would the kitchen be able to temper the touches of kitsch and deliver authentic Russian fare? By the end of a few heavy but restorative meals, we had found a happy medium between tropes and truth: Hammer & Sickle is a restaurant that interprets Eastern European cuisine using an Uptown cheat sheet.
The reason for the success of Hammer & Sickle, owned by Gene Suh of the nearby Lyndale Tap House, is simple. It's a smart menu — unusual enough to be adventurous, but with familiar flavors and enough dollops of sour cream to woo finicky eaters. While they don't yet have the well-deserved cred (or the impeccable martini) of a place like Moscow on the Hill in St. Paul, or the shrouded-in-mystery air of Robbinsdale's St. Petersburg, the Hammer & Sickle kitchen turns out well-executed, uncomplicated, consistently good-tasting food — and quite reasonably priced to boot. No matter how stuffed our stomachs, or how many plates were strewn about the table, the bill for a two-person dinner with drinks remained closer to the $50 mark than the $100.
We began with a flash-broiled skewer of butter-drenched lobster shashlik with charred zucchini, blistered cherry tomatoes, and a scoopful of herbed rice. It would easily sell for $14 "cuz it's lobster" at other establishments in Minneapolis, but was only a cool $10 at Hammer & Sickle. The ample assorti fish plate, which is really more of a Russian smorgasbord, goes for just $7 a person, and includes toasted rye bread, ribbons of smoked and pickled fish like sturgeon and herring, a spoon of thick, dill-flecked sour cream, and a Russian egg. For the uninitiated, a Russian egg is a fuchsia-colored hard-boiled egg that's been pickled in beet juice, hollowed out, filled with creme fraiche and finely mashed yolk, and then crowned with a spoonful of caviar. We all agreed we could eat half a dozen of those alone, but the item all the other tables seemed to be ordering and eating by the dozen were the pierogi.
The menu features a whole section of pierogi, the Polish incarnation of a filled dumpling made with unleavened dough, as well as varenyky, the Ukrainian version of the dumpling. Here both are crescent-shaped and are boiled and then finished off with a quick pan-fry for an almost potsticker-like texture. They're stuffed with various savory ingredients like cheese, potato, bacon, and caramelized onion, as in the more straightforward Comrade pierogi. The spicier Cholo, a Mexican-inspired pierogi, comes filled with chorizo, potato, and jalapeno and was reminiscent of one of the two-bite tacos at Barrio. For maximum dumpling oomph, go for the Pollock, stuffed with kraut and beef, and served with a sinus-clearing horseradish cream.
Other classic Eastern European dishes included cabbage rolls stuffed to the seams with mildly seasoned ground beef, smothered in a simple, very clean-tasting tomato sauce; a creamy and very tender dish of beef stroganoff; and a chunky bowl of borscht, which our enchanting server told us was like "eating a bowl of delicious vitamins." She then went on to explain how, at home in Russia, she would eat some version of this same soup nearly every day and swore up and down that Hammer & Sickle's was an excellent facsimile. A touch more acidity and we would have been fully on board.
Hammer & Sickle is an ideal place to duck into, away from the cold night, and sample tastes from all the top performers of Eastern Europe's comfort-food portfolio: cabbage, potatoes, beets, meats, caviar, and, of course, vodka. They serve nearly 70 different varieties, but if you aren't sitting at the bar, you may not be aware of the full array. If vodka — particularly Russian or Polish vodka — is your thing, or you want it to be, request a spot up front and get friendly with the bartender.
Overall, the house-designed cocktails weren't objectionable, nor were they memorable. The Miracle on Ice, which sounded from the menu description like it would arrive lit on fire (it did not), was a bit out of whack, with too heavy a dose of vanilla-cherry bitters to the ratio of Bulleit rye. It was thrilling to get a Moscow Mule served in the proper metal cup, complete with an ornately wound handle, but it still played second fiddle to the straight shots of house-infused vodkas. Even though they just use Smirnoff and steep it with cherry, citrus, or the runaway favorite, horseradish, these vodkas were undeniably delicious when paired, cold and stunningly clear, with Hammer & Sickle's caviar. You get a complimentary shot when you order any single scoop of domestic caviar (we had white paddlefish that popped like delicate, briny soda bubbles) or when you pick three of the super fancy imported stuff. Both varieties are served with thin rounds of blini, creme fraiche, chopped boiled potato, chopped pickles, and a smattering of microgreens presented as a kind of make-your-own caviar creation.
With the Sochi Olympics on the horizon, we imagine this vodka bar will only get more packed and popular. If you go, order like a pro: Skip the bar-food standards in favor of the more real-deal Russian fare. Go for straight-up vodka, but try something you've never had before. Give yourself over to the idea that sour cream goes with absolutely everything.