As commodities-rich Russians transform Central Park South into a Little Moscow, caviar-and-vodka venues have followed close behind.
You wouldn’t expect an iron-ore magnate to take the Q Train to Brighton Beach, would you?
Carnegie Hall’s Russian Tea Room, resurrected in 2006, was the most prominent of the non-Brooklyn bunch. Now, 400 meters away we have Brasserie Pushkin, boasting a serious level of Russian street cred and some sky-high prices.
The Pushkin’s flagship is a Moscow landmark whose original, ornate wood interiors suggest the tsarist era and the food speaks to Russia’s love affair with France. In the 110-seat Manhattan branch, dry-ice desserts and $34 king crab penne evoke Russia’s oligarch-era.
Pushkin’s black sturgeon caviar is listed at $135, an aggressive price considering the Michelin two-starred Marea, just a few blocks away, asks $90-$120 for such luxuries. What passes for “affordable” in Moscow, one of the most expensive cities in the world, doesn’t necessarily work in New York, one of the gastronomic capitals of the world.
Borscht, studded with short ribs, beets and dill, is fantastic. It’s also $18, a lot for soup. Pair it with an entree of Siberian dumplings ($22), tender little bites of veal, pork and lamb encased in dough. You’ll spend over $50 after tax and tip.
The same dinner costs around $20 at Veselka, the venerable Ukrainian diner in the East Village, where service is friendly and efficient.
Good luck trying to hail down the staff at Brasserie Pushkin when you need your check.
Those waiters hover around your table with “French-style” service while you try to eat. They struggle with the arcane and useless art of employing a fork and spoon to serve salad Olivier one quenelle at a time to one guest at a time. It’s agony to watch.
It’s also depressing to eat. Olivier is traditionally a cheap brunoise of potatoes and ham, bound by mayo and speckled with peas. Mari Vanna, in Gramercy Park, serves a fine version for $12. Brasserie Pushkin’s mediocre variation is $22; it’s made with thin-sliced chicken breast (reasonably tasty), crawfish tails (flavorless) and osetra caviar (undetectable).
Beef tartare ($22) is laden with so much quail egg that it becomes a slimy mush of raw beef.
Risotto ($12), undercooked and mealy, is served cool enough to prevent the gritty parmesan topping from melting.
Veal blintzes taste like a tuna fish sandwich ($19) that’s been microwaved. Just as bad are the pirozhki, filled with a meaty crumble as tasty as a $1 McDonald’s hamburger. And the signature pojarasky cutlet has all the flavor and texture of a chicken McNugget. It’s $35.
Stroganoff ($34), strips of sour cream-sauced tenderloin, come with potatoes in Moscow.
In New York, the pommes puree is $12 extra. Cha-ching! Ukha, a fish soup silken with the oils of pike, salmon and sturgeon, is fine as long as you don’t pour in the accompanying side of ginger vodka, imparting to your $18 bowl an unwelcome alcohol sting.
Small carafes of excellent cranberry or pine nut-vodka, $30, properly accompany such fare. Fancier types will opt for $45 flutes of Laurent-Perrier Champagne; I’ll make do with Roederer at $18.
Black roast beef, a poorly named dish, turns out to be a thin and succulent strip of short rib ($18).
Follow up with sterlet in crawfish sauce ($46), whose hideous black spine you’re expected to remove yourself; the waiters must be tired from spooning all those quenelles. The $48 dry-aged ribeye boasts as much flavor as you’ll find at a proper steakhouse.
Strawberry tea jelly is a fine dessert; crude dulce de leche ice cream-layer cake is not.
How about something more traditional, like blini with jam? Sorry, the spongy pancakes are only advertised with the pricey caviar. Maybe Mikhail Prokhorov gets a kick out of that. I didn’t.
The Bloomberg Questions
Price: How much you got?
Sound Level: Around 70 decibels. Not terrible.
Date Place: If you’re Prokhorov.
Inside Tip: Stellar house-infused vodkas.
Special Feature: Salmon caviar for $29.
Back on My Own Dime: Not likely.
Brasserie Pushkin is at 41 West 57th St. Information: 1-212- 465-2400 or http://www.brasseriepushkin.com.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor
Sound-Level (in decibels): 51 to 55: Quiet enough to converse. 56 to 60: Speak up. 61 to 65: Lean in if you want to hear your date. 66 to 70: You’re reading one another’s lips. 71 to 75: You’re yelling. 76 to 85: Ear-splitting din.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include James Pressley on books and James Russell on design.