Outside, the elegantly dressed doorman, absent for four years, is again standing sentry. Inside, waiters in red tunics are bearing plates of Beluga, patrons in pinstripes are hoisting glasses of Smirnoff and a five-piece band is warming up for a rendition of "Memories." The Russian Tea Room is back.
Closed in 1995, the venerable New York restaurant has been rebuilt and reinvented with aplomb by theme restaurant impresario Warner LeRoy at a cost of about $20 million. Hard to beat as a venue for a celebration, a good draw for anyone with a hankering for food from the Motherland, the Russian Tea Room is surely worth a stop on the grand tour of New York.
It's apparent that LeRoy--best known for creating Maxwell's Plum, a hot New York hangout in the '60s and '70s, and for popularizing Central Park's Tavern on the Green--thinks of the ideal restaurant as a sort of theme park with food. Last week, over a plate of blini, he explained his concept for the new Tea Room: "I wanted it to be everyone's fantasy of what a Russian restaurant should be like."
That would explain the crush of paraphernalia, ranging from the truly artistic to the downright garish: the miniature re-creation of St. Basil's Cathedral and other Red Square landmarks; the 18-foot tree trimmed with multicolored, Faberge-inspired, glass eggs; the 37-foot-high revolving glass bear; the ice sculptures holding bottles of icy vodka; the ceilings of Tiffany glass.
In the big, first-floor dining room, much of the original festive mood and quaint decor remains: the revolutionary-red banquettes, the tree bulbs and other Christmas decorations on display year-round, the gold samovars lining the walls. Even with the crowd of curious tourists and die-hard New Yorkers who regularly assemble here, the room evokes the Tea Room of yore.
LeRoy worked hard to get the food right. He had hundreds of old Russian recipes translated from cookbooks, made a couple of trips to Moscow and created a special kitchen where chefs experimented for a year with hundreds of dishes. Executive chef Fabrice Canelle's credentials include stints at the Ambria in Chicago and San Francisco's Brasserie Savoy. "Great Russian food pretty much died with the revolution," LeRoy said. "Our ambition is to bring back the grand cuisine that graced Russian tables in the old days."
The effort, for the most part, has paid off. As an aficionado of Russian cuisine, who dined on blini and borscht for four years as chief of The Washington Post's Moscow bureau, I found the food at the new Tea Room to be the biggest treat of all. The blini were tender, the dark bread authentic and hearty. The chicken Kiev, with its crispy crust and buttery filling, proved more succulent than anything I ever ate in the capital of Ukraine. The pelmeni--dumplings filled with veal and beef in chicken broth--were at once light, filling and tasty, perhaps the menu's best dish.
There were disappointments. The hot borscht, which I had as an appetizer, was a bit too sweet and heavy with braised meat. Borscht, probably the best-known of all Russian dishes, is hard to get right. With the exception of the blini, the desserts were forgettable. But then, the best meals I ate in Russian homes or restaurants ended with a standard bowl of vanilla ice cream.
Russian Tea Room, 150 W. 57th St., 212-974-2111. Reservations are essential. Dinner for two, with a house wine and dessert, runs about $120.