Like many New Yorkers, I’ve long had a soft spot for the red, green and gold czarist fantasy of Midtown’s vintage Russian Tea Room, even if the food only lived intermittently up to the decor. Things hit what I thought was rock-bottom at a mid-December lunch.
On that unfortunate occasion, snippy service and leaden dishes at the W. 57th Street tourist magnet, opened by the Russian Imperial Ballet nearly a century ago, felt about as luxurious as a 1970s package tour of the USSR.
I doubted things could be as awful at dinner, and had the chance to find out last week. I was wrong. Our even worse meal came with a side of decidedly unwelcome drama. Turns out, the “classic” onetime haunt of Rudolf Nureyev and Hollywood and Broadway boldfacers not only needs a new chef, but the fire marshal, too.
Everything we ordered tasted pre-assembled and reheated. (Lawyers, chill: I didn’t say they were made that way, but that they tasted like it.)
Khinkali (Georgian beef dumplings) could serve as cannonballs. A “rich mushroom cream sauce” glued Stroganoff egg noodles together like pages in a wet book.
Kulebyaka, once proud of the kitchen, imprisoned overcooked salmon inside stiff pastry crust that would embarrass a fast-casual lunch spot, where it certainly would not cost $46.
And even the warring Ukrainians and Russians would make a common front against the flavorless and dry “Côtelette à la Kiev.” The hapless, preformed-looking chicken was entirely without squirt, making a liar of the menu which it described as “herb butter-stuffed.” It was, in fact, stuffed with nothing.
But dinner, if you’d call it that, came with a terrifying intermission. A fire broke out right at the front of the dining room, at the base of a glass-enclosed Felix the Cat painting. (What’s Felix doing there? Who knows, who cares?)
Not in 22 years of covering restaurants have I had a scarier experience. Acrid smoke billowed through the restaurant, over platters of blinis and blinchik. Pervasive and oily, the smoke set off no alarms. Nobody called the fire department. Managers cared more about not damaging the art with water or extinguishing material than they did about putting out a potential conflagration. (The restaurant didn’t respond to several requests for comment.)
Reluctant to break the glass, they finally used a fire extinguisher after frightened customers urged them to do something for ten long minutes. The few of us who hadn’t left stood in a shocked vigil near the blaze — which, it turned out, was triggered by frayed wires that could easily have turned us all into boiled borscht — ready to make a run for the door.
Sensing our dissatisfaction — eg “This is dangerous! This is terrible!” — $26 cocktails were removed from our bill, among them an anemic, vodka-based Moscow Mule and a fruity “Cosmonaut” that fizzled on the launch pad.
But rather than delete a few drinks, the operators — the Biberaj family who own the building — should consider a larger favor to the dining millions, and the legacy of a long-time New York treasure: namely, delete the entire, once-respectable relic from the landscape.
Checking in on NYC’s classic restaurants
Still worth a visit
Sardi’s234 W. 44th St. Still packs Broadway-district punch
Keen’s Steakhouse72 W. 36th St. Fabulous mutton chop and atmosphere
Gallagher’s228 W. 52nd St. Beautiful, century-old bar and solid American menu
Peter Luger, 178 Broadway, Brooklyn. Porterhouse still great despite critics’ quibbles
Odeon, 145 West Broadway. Fine menu and service after 42 years in Soho
Tavern on the GreenCentral Park at W. 67th St. Outdoors only! Surprisingly decent menu better in garden than in cramped, charmless interior
Give these a miss
JG Melon, 1291 Third Ave. Why Upper East Siders wait an hour here (above) for mediocre burgers is a mystery
Sylvia’s, 328 Malcolm X Blvd. Tired “southern” menu eclipsed by newer and better Harlem restaurants
Rolf’s, 281 Third Ave. Dry $38 schnitzel gives German cuisine a bad name