Stepping into this little dive on Fifth Street, I am greeted by a bizarre spectacle: A taxidermied grizzly bear, a strikingly beautiful woman and a giant flag of the (now defunct) Soviet Union. Such is the novelty of Russian House, downtown's newest haunt.
The statuesque beauty at the door is none other than the owner, Varda — a 20-something restaurateur who looks torn from the pages of Vogue. She and co-owner husband Vladimir are Moscow transplants who courageously endeavored to bring their beloved cuisine to Austin.
So far, their effort is nothing short of dazzling and delicious. A friend recently asked me to describe Russian House and I found myself waxing poetic, “It’s a nostalgic phantasmagoria of gypsy folk, a Moscow nightclub and delicious food all meeting in the living room of the Russian grandmother you never had.” She replied, “That good, eh?” Da.
Varda escorts me to a table in the back where we begin chatting over doily tablecloths and hot black tea. “In Russia,” she says, “eating out is quite different than in the states. When Russians go to a restaurant, we stay for the whole night. We dance for a bit, eat and talk with our family, drink some more, and then we dance it all off. Restaurants offer the full experience in Russia, that’s what we wanted to recreate here.” And indeed that’s exactly what they’ve done; party in the front and business in the back — the business of seriously good food.
Russian food is a bit hard to describe to those who’ve not tasted it. It’s not spicy, sweet or fattening, but is decisively hearty. If you count Russia as being more Western instead of Eastern, then the term, “Soul food of Europe” fits well. After all, they are the inventors of beef stroganoff.
Upon sitting, the waitress brings a breadboard lined with radishes, green onions, salt and rye bread to our table. Next come the free shots of vodka. American restaurants might become fabulously successful if they started treating their patrons to complimentary booze right from the get-go, but I digress.
The interior of Russian House is a treat for the eyes. The owners played up the kitschy cold war era theme in their decor. Old propaganda lines the walls of the discotheque while a beautiful mural of bright reds and golds stares down from the ceiling. The staff (mainly female) shuffles about in white lace aprons that strongly resemble nurse’s costumes. The bar is home to 40 vodka infusions that gleam from ornate glass bottles, resembling an apothecary more than a bar.
Despite the novelty of Russian House, the one thing Varda and Vladimir did not mess around with was the food. “The original menu was 50 pages long” Varda confesses. "My husband insisted on including every Russian meal on the planet. I got him to scale it back a bit.” But even scaled back the menu is truly impressive; marinated, stewed, roasted over coals, caviar, elk, lamb, scallops, mussels, Ukrainian, Albanian, Serbian influences...
Varda tells me excitedly, “We’re trying to get bear on the menu, its delicious and would be a great honor for us to offer it.” I guess for Russians the term “you’re outdoing yourself” doesn’t apply. The vodka menu alone is enough to command a visit from Anthony Bourdain, I think bear filet might drive him to madness.
Of the 40 house-made Vodka infusions, the flavors that piqued my interested were “Horseradish,” “Elderberry & Orange” and “Immunity Mix (Rose Hip, Siberian Ginger, Red Clover). Varda explained that in Russia, vodka infusions are believed to be medicinal, similar to a tincture. When the herb or fruit has marinated in the vodka for a few weeks, it absorbs whatever health properties were found in the herb. Turning each vodka infusion into a powerful tonic of homeopathic intoxication. My kind of medicine.
My experience at Russian House was superb. The nightlife is a fresh take compared to the typical Austin bar scene and the food is to die for. But dear readers, if there is one dish that is going to make your experience complete, it’s the dessert: Babushka’s cake. Frozen itty bitty morsels of chocolate fudge and walnuts covered in whipped cream and chocolate sauce. I have never devoured anything in my life that came close in deliciousness and never felt less willpower around food.
Everyone I referred to this restaurant following this interview sent me a text along the lines of, “WTF was in that dessert @russian place u sent me? MY GOD.”