W arner LeRoy’s doomed incarnation of the Russian Tea Room closed only five short years ago, although in the frantic world of modern-day New York dining, it seems like five decades. As the famous old room sat moldering on 57th Street (the U.S. Golf Association leased the space, thought of turning it into a golf museum, then abandoned the idea), all sorts of odd things were happening outside. The French restaurant, in LeRoy’s day the template for luxury, disappeared from view. In the snootiest foodie circles, rusticated specialties like ramps and hand-foraged hen-of-the-woods mushrooms replaced caviar and foie gras as the objects of adoration and lust. Hamburgers became gourmet items, and gourmet establishments began franchising themselves like hamburger chains. And all over the vast, turbulent fine-dining landscape, Battlestar Galactica–size restaurants grew and multiplied, in ways that even Warner LeRoy himself might never have imagined.
LeRoy, who died in 2001, was, of course, the godfather of restaurant showmanship and glitz. He grew up among the movie barons of Hollywood and founded a string of successful, wildly theatrical restaurants, including the city’s most kitschy, enduringly popular dining palace, Tavern on the Green. The Russian Tea Room, which was opened by czarist émigrés in the twenties, was LeRoy’s grand folly, his great white whale. He poured $30 million into the venture (he bought it in 1995 and reopened it in 1999), which foundered when the restaurant’s discerning showbiz regulars considered his changes to be too big, too brassy, too crass. Now a group of investors has reopened the old downstairs room, more or less as LeRoy left it, replete with swooping imperial eagles on the walls, the collection of golden samovars, and the clutter of fake Braques and Picassos. The first thing you notice when you squeeze into one of the famous, though now strangely petite, red leather banquettes is that the room doesn’t feel brassy or crass anymore. It feels dated or, depending on your perspective, charmingly quaint.
In this era of grandiose disco dining palaces, of course, quaintness is not such a bad thing. There is no insidious disco backbeat at the Russian Tea Room, the bar area is the size of a horse stall as opposed to an entire barn, and the long antique room is suffused day and night with golden, flattering light. I imagine that caviar was cheaper in Audrey Hepburn’s day, but today there are still eight varieties of it available (the most expensive, Iranian special reserve, being $300 for 30 grams), all brought to the table on silver trays with stacks of warm, puffy buckwheat blini. The new chef in the kitchen is Gary Robins, who was known previously in restaurant circles as an expert in the black art of Asian-fusion cuisine. He puts his talents to work here, conjuring up a variety of nouveau-Russian specialties like savory blintzes called blinchiki (stuffed with wild mushrooms and duck confit, and softened with goat cheese instead of sour cream), and a nice deconstructed version of beef stroganoff, composed of beef short ribs dressed with sour cream and a tangle of buttery linguine.
In the manner of most fusion restaurants, however, some of these experiments work better than others. My favorite thing on the pricey ($20 for five tiny items) zakuski tray was little shreds of apple-smoked duck arranged on rye crisps, but there were so few of them that they disappeared in about ten seconds. The house borscht contains pleasing nuggets of short ribs but was tepid by the time it got to our table, and Robins’s reworking of pelmeni (oxtail broth with foie gras dumplings), that old Russian Tea Room specialty, seemed to have been strained through several pounds of salt. Among the traditionalist appetizers, the one to get is the blinchiki. If you like goose, you’ll love the goose carpaccio (with a sprinkling of Asian pear and toasted pistachios), and if you’re in the mood for foie gras, order the braised-rabbit studen, which consists of layers of engorged duck liver and braised rabbit pressed together in a delicate sherry gelée.
If this sounds like fancy, top-drawer cooking, that’s because it is. Or at least it’s supposed to be. Ten of the dinner entrées at the Russian Tea Room cost over $36, and five of those cost over $40. And while most of the dishes I sampled were inventively conceived, their execution seemed to vary from day to day, and even hour to hour. The roast turbot (presented on a bed of gourmet pastrami and cabbage) was perfectly cooked one evening and radically overcooked the next. The poached-lobster entrée at dinner is a foamy, overproduced (and, at $47, overpriced) combination of sour cream and pickled papayas, but if you order lobster at lunchtime, it comes folded, with fresh-made gnocchi, in a deliciously opulent cream sauce. The pork tenderloin is nicely flavored with cherries and onions; the signature chicken Kiev didn’t seem to be flavored with much of anything at all; and I had to agree with the lady next to me when she declared that the buckwheat pilaf, which accompanied her decent portion of glazed duck, tasted “like my grandmother’s socks.”