Oleg Mironov knows some things very well. Russian wine. Borscht. Rules.
If his menu at Russian Bear Cafe says "only available 'till 3 p.m.," think twice before asking for said item at 4:30 p.m. With one hand perched solidly on his hip, the other dropped to his side clutching a notepad, he'll cock his head quizzically before huffing an agitated, "No."
Thems the rules.
But lucky for us, Mironov's wife Svetlana graciously pandered to our potato pancake whim, shuffling back into the open kitchen to check for remaining batter. Mironov, too, warmed up quickly once asked to describe his favorite Russian beers on the menu.
As non-Russian speakers, we put ourselves at Mironov's mercy, letting him guide us through the "lady wines" and "morning beers" that dotted the menu. The cafe stocks Russian staple brand Baltika and the Ukranian Obolon, and each comes in varieties ranging from golden lager to dark. My date went with Obolon Magnat ($5.15, 0.5L).
I, on the other hand, put on my floaties and waded into the wine list, a shallow pool of nine unpronounceable names all described as semi-sweet. "But not sweet," Mironov made clear. Since I had heard of exactly none of the varietals, I went with the Isabella red ($7.20), which was described as a Concord-esque grape native to the southern Russian town of the same name.
After a few minutes, Mironov reappeared with our drinks balanced on a dusty-rose plastic cafeteria tray, a thematic nod to the cafe's burgundy walls. As he poured the nutty, well-balanced beer into its accompanying glass and set the Great Grape Dimetap-esque Isabella on the table, he launched into a lengthy explanation of the difference between oak barrel and stainless steel aging processes. Nodding and smiling, we knew we'd won his favor. And while it might seem odd to court the approval of a restaurateur, something in his discerning, non-coddling temperament makes even the most eclectic epicure play by his rules.
Soon a steaming bowl of borscht ($5.85, 8 oz.) was set before us. Both newbies to this proletariat beet and cabbage staple, we peered hesitantly into the orange oil and parsley-flecked purple broth. A dollop of sour cream oozed little milky rivulets into the soup, which had started to look disturbingly like a Koi fish. But the borscht was pure delight—a balance of hearty veggies and a savory, well-seasoned broth. Suddenly it made sense why this poor man's meal has remained atop the list of Russian culinary treasures: When done well, it's damn good.
Svetlana must've pulled some strings, because a plate of potato pancakes soon appeared before us—four mounds of golden fried starch drizzled in sour cream. Though they were more doughy than we'd expected, nothing fried and topped with sour cream will ever get a finger-shaking from me. The mushroom, cheese and spinach blini ($8.06), on the other hand, got a feisty, "snap, no you did-n't." Though the savory crepe was well executed, the mushrooms were of the—gasp—slimy canned button variety, and the spinach was the frozen cafeteria mush Popeye pedaled. After a couple of bites, we pushed it aside. Seeing as Russian cuisine is not known for its bountiful use of non-pickled or fried veggies, sticking with the meatier crepes—ham, pastrami or smoked turkey—would definitely behoove you.
With twinkling, multi-colored Christmas lights coloring our peripheral vision, my dinner date and I delved deep into conversation. Though we were the cafe's only remaining patrons, the Mironovs made us feel like we could stay as long as we'd like, never slyly sliding a check across the table. We waved goodnight as they prepared dough for their meat dumpling special, knowing we'd have no t-ruble finding our way back to Eagle for another round of beers and borscht.
—Tara Morgan wears the iron curtain as a cape.