Russian Tea House: Not just for piroshki

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Piroshki, borsht and pilmeini

Twenty years ago I had a Russian boyfriend who took me to the Russian Tea House for piroshki. Like everybody always says, they tasted like the best hamburger you ever had. The big white house on University Avenue looks as though a story book opened up high in the sky and dropped an illustration out among the otherwise ugly industrial urban stretch that is home to fast food abominations and auto repair garages. 

Walk in, and an inebriating wall of spice cabinet meets you like a second door — it's almost a substance, it's that provocative. The nearly 40-year-old institution has inspired a terrific amount of ink, cravings, and probably a few marriage proposals. Nicolai and Linda Alenov's cooking has graced the Food Network, every newspaper in this fine city, and the stomachs of Bob Dylan and Bono, who had lunch from time to time after shopping the adjacent famed guitar shop, Pete's. It's one of those places of another time, and if it goes away, nothing like it will exist again. 

Twenty years later the Russian boyfriend is a distant memory, but the Alenovs seem to have not changed a hair, still smiling from behind their cafeteria-style kitchen window, where great pillowy dumplings and doughs, bulbous with fragrant meats and silky potatoes, steam away in their pans. 

While they've always been known for those piroshki — throw-pillow sized affairs where the enveloping dough wraps ground meat in a protective, delicate layer — it was the other dishes I swooned for. 

It's a bore to compare cooking to grandma's, but there's a reason why it's done. Grandma's cooking isn't showy or self-involved. She's not doing it to test out the mechanism on her whip cream charger or to use "finishing salts." She's doing what's right because she knows it's goddamn right. Seasonings are as balanced and deep as her own convictions. 

And that's what the sturdy, sensible dishes at the Russian Tea House are like — 40 years in the making, tens of thousands of go-rounds later, and by now absolute perfection.

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Stroganoff, piroshki, and vinaigrette potato salad

Slow braised beef stroganoff with the depth and class of fine bolognese is ladled not over noodles but great pillows of potato-filled dumplings, unmistakably handmade. You could imagine a soldier fortifying himself for war with this dish. Pork and beef-filled Pelmeini, fat and round as a man's thumb, get a couple ice cream scoops of sour cream, a drizzle of spiced mustard, and a side of vinegar that acts as dazzling foil to all the richness. Similarly reviving is a vinaigrette potato salad, impressively pink from beet,  tossed with carrot, kraut, pickles, beans, and an addictively bright vinaigrette. Peasant food at its very finest. Borsht is lush, and soothing as medicine. I had the great fortune of having this meal during Friday's unseasonably wet chill, and it indeed was nothing short of a curative. 

Now that the Alenovs are only offering their cooking on Fridays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., here is a prescription for getting through winter that currently looms like a specter: Load up on all of this each week, taking care to bring some home for the freezer. Russian food freezes well, perhaps because they know a thing or two about the cold. I get the sense that the fine people of this kitchen are providing their prodigious talents as community service and palliative care. Take them up on it.  Russian Tea House  1758 University Ave. W., St. Paul 651-646-4144


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