New York's Russian Restaurant Revolution
by matthew wexler
If there is a conclusion to be drawn from the barrage of Russian eateries taking Manhattan by storm, it is that opulence takes many forms. The exquisite carvings and François Boucher painting Vulcan Presenting Venus with Arms for Aeneas at Brasserie Pushkin’s aristocratic hôtel particulier, The Russian Tea Room’s infamous red and gold dining room, or the museum-worthy collection of costumes from the original 1910 Ballets Russes at Firebird—these and other establishments are setting the stage for immerse culinary experiences that pay homage to centuries past while keeping a keen eye on current dining trends.
Jacob Ryvkin, general manager of Onegin (named after the central character in Alexander Pushkin’s famous 1833 novel, Eugene Onegin), says the new openings are sustainable, in part, due to second- and third-generation Russian Americans moving out of the old Brighton Beach neighborhood and into Manhattan. “Stereotypes have changed about our culture,” says Ryvkin, whose upscale eatery features Alexander Pushkin’s scribbles and sketches adorning the walls. “We’re peaking in fashion and food and even taking over soccer teams.” (Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev recently purchased a controlling stake of Monaco’s soccer club for a reported $130 million.)
Peaking perhaps, but the history of haute Russian cuisine in New York City dates back to the opening of The Russian Tea Room in 1927 by members of the Russian Imperial Ballet. Since then it has been a gathering place for artists and politicians as well as throngs of New York visitors who flock to the second-floor Czarist wonderland complete with a 15-foot revolving bear-shaped aquarium and a towering gold tree decked with glass eggs. “The quality, scope, art, and history of The Russian Tea Room is unsurpassed,” says vice president Ken Biberaj. “Quite simply, the room glows.” But the restaurant has evolved with the times: While you can still splurge on an ounce of Golden Caspian Osetra caviar for $295, there are prix-fixe options at both lunch and dinner as well as a petite steak menu. “We’ve always striven to be a second home for our guests,” reflects Biberaj, “a symbol of Russian democracy from the 1920s to today.”
For Ellen Kaye, daughter of former Russian Tea Room owners Faith Stewart-Gordon and Sidney Kaye, growing up in The Russian Team Room meant spending time with the likes of Zero Mostel, Uta Hagen, and Sammy Cahn (who insisted pickles be placed on the table immediately upon arrival) while also gaining a broader understanding of the region’s culinary roots. Moscow 57, the catering company she recently launched in partnership with Ethan Fein and chef Seth Goldman, takes inspiration from the Russian dishes she grew up with and the cuisine of Central Asia. “Russians used to refer to this region as ‘the near abroad,’” explains Kaye. “We’re keeping the food sexy and exciting but incorporating this larger worldview with more vegetables and brighter flavors.” While Moscow 57 continues scouting for a permanent home, it has established pop-ups throughout the city and will soon include a café as part of Holiday House, a design showcase benefiting The Breast Cancer Research Foundation, open from October 25 through November 18.
Other newly opened outposts also hope to capitalize on the growing interest in Russian cuisine and culture. Onegin’s Greenwich Village location is creating buzz for its zastolie, a banquet-style feast featuring an array of classic dishes including cured herring, wild duck, and blini with caviar and homemade smetannik (an addictive layered sour cream cake). Further uptown, the Carnegie Hall crowd and Fifth Avenue shoppers are flocking to Brasserie Pushkin, where the menu features meticulously sourced ingredients such as heirloom millet, imported sunflower oil, and Kamchatka king crab—but the real star is executive pastry chef Emmanuel Ryon’s front-of-house pâtisserie. Ryon’s presence, as well as his bounty of awards including first prize at the 1999 World Championship of Patisserie, is a sweet reminder that Russian aristocrats went to great lengths to staff their kitchens with the best classically trained French chefs.
Beyond the kitchen, Manhattan’s nightlife scene is also getting an influx of Russian Standard. Jelsomino, which recently opened in the subterranean level of the Dream Hotel, combines inventive cocktails with state-of-the-art karaoke. The groovy cell-block vibe showcases leather director’s chairs in lieu of bar stools—each emblazoned with a karaoke icon such as Mercury, Joplin, or Cass. Here, one percenters can enjoy bottle service (vodka, of course, but why not go for a jeroboam of Dom Pérignon?) and purchase a choreographed show that involves the entire staff from waiters to bartenders—turning Jelsomino into the ultimate Russian flash mob.
photograph by Francesco Tonelli (meringue, brasserie pushkin); Jeffrey Mosier Photography (russian tea room); Harris/protechnyc.com (firebird)
Cover shoot: May/June 2014 issue of Gotham magazine.