From Russia with love
Stolichniy5601 Watt Ave.
North Highlands, CA 95660
What does Russian food make you think of? Endless Soviet bread lines? Meat and potatoes made palatable by lashings of vodka? Or delicate, eggy crepes filled with a woodsy yet subtle chicken and mushroom mixture?
If the latter, you’ll like Stolichniy—and if either of the former, you might do well to visit it to change your mind. That’s not to say there’s not a hint of the Soviet era at this brightly lit place on the upper reaches of Watt Avenue. We found it in the lengthy menu from which many items were simply unavailable; I’d brought along a Russian-speaking friend in case little English was spoken, and he said he was reminded of a sojourn in Romania, when he would be handed a long and elaborate bill of fare, only to be served a single dish: the only thing the restaurant had.
It wasn’t that bad at Stolichniy, though. They only were missing a few things—though one of them was the solianka (mysteriously translated on the menu as “national hard meat soup”), which I’d heard was a specialty. Instead, we started off with a round of bliny, those eggy crepes mentioned above, which can be filled with any number of things. Our server was noncommittal about which was best, but the chicken and mushroom version we chose was very fine. The rectangular crepe packets were nicely toasted, the filling was moist and packed with flavor, and the plate was decorated with a precisely carved tomato.
From there, we had hoped for pelmeni (dumplings), but they were out, so instead we got vareniki (Ukrainian-style dumplings). These were doughy, pale and heavy, though not unpleasantly so, and filled with a finely shredded mixture of beef and pork. Over the top of them was a golden, salty sauce that was suspiciously similar to Campbell’s cream of chicken soup. The essence of comfort food, a member of my party declared, and she was right.
One might think that to go with all of this we would be indulging in shot after shot of vodka. No: For one thing, my shot-swilling days (never many) are long past, and for another they didn’t seem to have any on offer. I’m presuming they lacked a hard-liquor license. Instead, there were lots of juices (a refrigerator case teemed with tomato juice) and a short wine list that was heavy on selections with lots of Ks and Zs in the names and entirely free of any wine I’d ever heard of.
We asked for guidance, and our server brought out two bottles of red: both semi-sweet, both from Georgia (the ex-Soviet republic, not the Peach State). One he distinguished from the other by saying it tasted of raspberries and that it was the favorite of Stalin. Could the killer of millions be wrong? I went with it, meaning to order a glass, but a bottle appeared. After the Stalin intro, though, I hardly wanted to protest.
The hearty appetizers were such that main dishes might seem supererogatory, but we persevered: I had a pork dish that was much like some kind of crazy Atkins sandwich, with two slices of (slightly tough) pork enclosing sautéed mushrooms, the whole topped with salty white cheese. The peppery meat was accompanied by wedge-cut French fries, which tasted a bit of stale grease. A friend had the best of the entrees, herbed and very onion-y ground-lamb kebabs, much like what you might find in a Middle Eastern restaurant but far juicier than such renditions. The kebabs came with a pile of fluffy, bland rice.
My husband’s pot roast (really a beef stew in its own little pot, which looked charmingly like an acorn squash) featured chunks of tender meat, mealy potatoes and a few other vegetables in a savory liquid. Before it, he got a side salad. To be honest, I’ve seen salads in Russian markets, and nearly all of them looked like mayonnaise soup with a few little unidentifiable things in them, so I steered clear of ordering salads. But this little side salad was fresh, tangy with a light lemon-juice dressing, and full of crunchy lettuce and pieces of bright veggies—a real surprise.
We didn’t order any of the bread (it’s sold for a few cents a piece), but we saw some go out to another table and it looked fresh and lofty. Instead, we looked at the desserts. The savory bliny had been so successful that we ordered a sweet version; the menu said it came with blueberries or strawberries, and I reasoned that at this time of year frozen blueberries would be better than frozen strawberries. Well, they had neither. Instead, it was that berry trio (blackberries, blueberries and raspberries) common in the freezer case, but it was delicious anyway, with those same tender eggy crepes enfolding the fruit.
We also had an order of “snowberries”—the berry trio, sprinkled with crunchy sugar, over a “brandy yogurt sauce” that turns out to be a cream-cheesy, sweetened, smooth yogurt mixture, deliciously like a cheesecake soup or a blintz filling. I could have lived without the spray of whipped cream on top, though it added a frilly ring that looked like a tutu straight from the Bolshoi Ballet’s costume department. All of it was far from notions of Soviet-style deprivation or grim mystery meat. If you’re looking for supremely comforting, hearty and well-cooked food for a late winter’s day, Stolichniy would be an ideal choice.