As Karen Peterson posed for a picture beside a set of matryoshka dolls in the Russian Tea Room, the midtown-Manhattan restaurant founded by anti-Bolshevik immigrants in 1927, she was in no mood to talk about Vladimir Putin.
Half a world away from the bloody fighting in eastern Ukraine that is ensnaring Russia in its worst diplomatic standoff with the U.S. since the Cold War, business is booming at the Russian Tea Room. Early one afternoon this week, tables were packed with people picking through a menu highlighted by items like the $295 golden osetra caviar, $38 chicken Kiev and $25 Beluga vodka shots.
Since the crisis began with Putin’s annexation of the Crimea peninsula in March, some out-of-town tourists have come looking to talk politics, hostess Anna Zinenko said. The Russian-speaking clients have gone quiet on the conflict, a subject made even more sensitive by last week’s downing of a passenger flight that killed 298 people. They just come to eat, she said.
Several blocks over from the Tea Room, the tables weren’t as full at Russian Samovar, but the sentiment was the same.
“I like the food, I like the culture, I am very confused by the politics,” Paula Place, a Connecticut resident who’s a regular at Manhattan’s Russian restaurants, said as she and her daughters picked through a honey layer cake called medovik.
Down in Soho, Alisa Savina was overseeing a bustling early-dinner crowd at Korchma Taras Bulba, which specializes in Ukrainian cuisine. She said the conflict has prompted her to change the dining recommendations she gives out. When new customers ask to try an authentic Ukrainian dish, she now steers them to a plate of dumplings stuffed with pre-cooked meat, known as vareniki, rather than borshch soup.
While there’s debate about the origin of borshch -- “and that can be viewed as a political question in this environment” -- there’s no doubt that this particular vareniki meal is Ukrainian, Savina said. The Russians have a similar dish, but theirs is made with raw meat, and that’s a “huge difference,” she said. Savina should know. She’s Russian.
Over in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach neighborhood, where Russian words in the Cyrillic alphabet are more common on storefronts than English, sales clerk Lyuba Kornilova was telling grocery store customers one recent afternoon to load up on extra imported caviar. As the U.S. and European Union consider stiffer sanctions against Putin’s administration for aiding the pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine, Kornilova said she’s worried the crisis could lead to import restrictions.
Putin might try to retaliate through trade, she said, “and you may end up buying Canadian caviar, which tastes pretty much like plastic to me.”