Sunday, December 01, 2013

The Chicago Dining World Tour: Russian Across the Street Proves an Appetizing--and Rather Exotic--Expedition

9925 Gross Point Rd., Skokie
What I ate: Blinis with Red Caviar, Borscht, Beef Stroganoff, Spartak (cake)

Technically, Sydney, Australia--or perhaps Melbourne--is the furthest from home I've ever traveled. In air miles, Sydney is twice as far from Chicago as is St. Petersburg, Russia.

But if not in distance, than in a difference in sensibility, I think St. Petersburg is the most exotic place I've ever been. Though St. Petersburg is barely into Russia in the far northwest corner, and I went on a 2008 trip to Scandinavia following visits to Copenhagen, Stockholm and Helsinki, from the size of the buildings to the visages of the people, the city felt quite far away from Europe, let alone America. (That's not to say I didn't enjoy it, as among other sights, I visited the Hermitage Museum and the Church on Spilled Blood, two of the most glorious places I've ever seen.)

On my Chicago Dining World Tour this year, I've been to a few dozen places in and around Chicago. But when it came to Russian food, I went to a Skokie restaurant--Zhivago--that is 2 minutes from my home and across the street from the house in which I grew up and in which my mom still lives.

Yet although Zhivago is housed in the building that once was Tower Garden Restaurant & Banquets, where I attended a few Bar Mitzvahs decades ago, in enjoying a nice dinner there a few weeks ago for my mom's birthday, with my sister Allison also joining us, it somehow felt worlds away. Perhaps not quite as though we were in Russia, but also not nearly as close to home as we really were.

In a large, pleasantly-appointed dining room--one of 3, and that doesn't even include the banquet facilities--we were initially served a plate of bread with butter, string chips and paté, which is essentially like Chopped Liver and thus savored by my mom but not me nor Allison, who is vegetarian. Unlike at a recent French food excursion, I tried the paté, but my opinion was unchanged.

For an appetizer, I ordered Blinis a La Dr. Zhivago, which the menu calls Peter the Great’s favorite appetizer. The best in the world from Russia.

I don't know what exactly translates to what, but although as you can see, there were crepes and a mix of hard boiled egg and scallions, the key thing here was caviar. There was a choice of Red Caviar or Black Caviar, the latter listed at "Market Price," which never means cheap.  

So I got some Red Caviar and really liked it; it reminded me of roe, which comes on certain types of sushi maki, and also tasted a bit like lox. Which as I've now learned makes sense since lox, roe and red caviar all come from salmon.

Next up, in addition to complimentary Russian black bread, was Borscht, which was beet soup with cabbage and potatoes. Though I'd heard of borscht for years, I'd never had it, and it was different than I anticipated. But as with the red caviar, I really liked it. Prior to the entrees, Allison got a salad which she enjoyed.

My mom has always enjoyed duck and it was nice that for her birthday meal she was able to order Moscowian Duck = Half roasted duck served with drunken sour cherry sauce.

She reported liking it very much, noting that the skin was crisp, meat moist and the dark cherry flavoring quite tasteful.

The duck was accompanied by green beans, white beans, potatoes and carrots.

For her entree, Allison ordered Wild Mushroom Ravioli, which came in a mushroom Alfredo sauce. She stated that it was good.

My main dish was rather traditionally Russian: Beef Stroganoff ala St. Petersburg = Julienned beef tenderloin sauteed in a light creamy mushroom sauce, served with buckwheat kasha or bow-tie pasta (I chose pasta).

I can't say that I'd want to eat this every week, and given the big dollop of sour cream I probably shouldn't, but I sufficiently enjoyed it as something a bit different and happily finished the serving.

I'll get to our desserts in a moment, but getting back to what I said up top about feeling like we were somewhere else, this was clearly exacerbated by the live music and dancing that started going on in the dining room next to us during the course of our meal.

Skokie has a large Russian population and one would surmise that Zhivago is a popular destination for Russians living throughout the area. And it was a lot of fun to see a roomful of patrons dancing--and likely consuming substantial quantities of vodka, of which we didn't partake--without any apparent reservations.

Though I had witnessed something similar, albeit on a smaller scale, on a Greek dining excursion, it was nice to see people enjoying themselves, unabashedly, to this extent.

Not that I had any inclination to get up and join them, but it made our meal all the more festive.

Of course, closing out with some great desserts didn't hurt either.

Allison had Tartufo, which per Wikipedia is an Italian ice cream dessert in which a ball of ice cream is encased in a shell of chocolate. Although it's been a few weeks, I don't recall her having any complaints.

Mom got some Apple Streudel, which I believe she liked.

I got Spartak, which I know I did. This was a piece of cake, accompanied by ice cream. A bit removed, I can't describe it precisely, but I know it was rather different and quite good.

As was our visit to Zhivago, which felt like a trip around the world and across the street at the same time.

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