This was advice given to me by an old Russian co-worker. Yes, I am sure it would be hard to confuse a West Indian man for a Russian. Were the cooks going to fatten up my friend and me like the lady in the gingerbread house did to Hansel and Gretel? Was someone going to find out that I was once a double agent? It would have been all over but the “uh, oh” if someone had discovered that I was a danger boy in my days of youth, disguised as a nerdy scientist by day, blackmailing people in political and public offices by night. How else could I afford such an extravagant lifestyle and still have enough money in my pocket to get cheese on my whopper?
My friend and I ventured into Russian territory without any Russians in tow. It was not as though we were going to a restaurant with non-Russians fronting as hosts, hostesses, cooks, waiters, and waitresses. Guess what. Our waitress was Russian, looking so much like a cute little girl. I bet she is a double agent, but I digress. Zhivago Restaurant on 9925 Gross Point Road in Skokie, IL, was the spot for our fattening experience. This restaurant doubles as a banquet hall and after my friend and I walked the labyrinth of halls and rooms to get to our seats, it was quite apparent that the restaurant and banquet hall do it up big.
Customary in Russian dining experiences, you partake of some good Russian vodka. My friend and I opted to drink something different. He chose a Russian beer and one look at the bottle was enough to have the church lady say, “Now, that’s a beer,” while licking her lips and beckoning a waiter so that she can order one for herself. I ordered a glass of Lindeman’s Shiraz. We downed our individual drinks while snacking on complementary whole grain and rye bread served up with butter as well as pâté. Knowing that the complementary goodies were not going to be enough, we ordered Caspian smoked sturgeon and schmaltz herring. The sturgeon was cold smoked with an old world blend of hickory, mesquite, and oak, served with crème fraiche, Spanish capers, and scallions. Sliced thinly, it tasted somewhat like cured ham. Insert declarative expletive — it was delicious. The schmaltz herring were chilled slices of marinated herring served with onions and boiled dill potatoes. While eating this, the taste that came to mind was that of sardines, but just meatier.
We also had borscht. I ate some unappetizing looking stuff when I was scheming with other spies during my days of danger and extortion. Borscht is a beet soup and I remember my grandmother cooking beets and putting them on my plate when I was a child. I would fall out of my chair and pound the floor while kicking my feet angrily. Oh, wait. I was not an ungrateful brat like that. I just asked for the rutabaga with some broth and crumbled cornbread instead. At any rate, the borscht came out as bowls of beets, cucumbers, and beet juice. My friend and I did not fall on the floor and act like brats. There were other people in the restaurant. The first few sips were something new, but it got tastier thereafter. I’m sure my grandmother was saying, “Now, you wait until you get old to eat beets.”
Well, the smoked sturgeon and schmaltz herring were just the beginning. For round two, we ordered Siberian pelmeni and a plate of stuffed pepper and cabbage. We thought about ordering chicken Kiev and beef stroganoff, but tried something different. Whenever I think of beef stroganoff, Hungry Jack frozen dinners come to mind and that is enough to kill an appetite. Maybe we’ll try those dishes next time. The Siberian pelmeni was a huge plate of pasta dumplings stuffed with seasoned ground meat, nestled in melted butter. It even came with a glass of sour cream for dipping and shredded, fried sweet potatoes. Oh, happy day! Because the dumplings were bite size, they were rather deceiving. Those things were filling, but my friend and I don’t eat like fashion models. We took care of business. The stuffed pepper and cabbage was a plate of ground chicken meat, carrots, sautéed onions, and rice topped with tomato sauce. The bell pepper was cooked just right, not the least bit of crunch to it. The stuffed cabbage sat on the plate for a good minute — now you see it, now you don’t.
While all the food we had eaten up to this point was filling, there still was some room in the bellies for some extra good stuff. Bring on the dessert. We ordered one spartak and one tarfuto. The spartak was unnecessarily good, even though it had walnuts in it. Since I used to blow up like a chipmunk in the face when I ate non-exotic nuts as a child, I am not a big fan of walnuts. However, the layers of genuine Genoise with cream filling served with chocolate and a raspberry sauce more than compensated for the “extra” ingredient. The tarfuto was just the ridiculously delicious dessert consisting of good quality chocolate ice cream, orange marmalade, coffee ice cream, Irish Cream liqueur, chocolate cookie crumb, and raspberries. I pity people who feel the need to be dainty when it comes down to good food. Granted my friend and I were not like drunk fraternity boys salivating over the delivery of a keg of beer, we were like kids in a candy store.
The service was outstanding. The food was out of this world. The bill was high. Then again, that may have been because of so much food and beverage. There are other items on the menu that we would like to sample, which means that we will definitely go back for the great service, damn good food, and just pay yet another high price for total satisfaction. I think I may need to find a few politicians and public figures to blackmail so that I don’t have to bother dipping into my savings to get money for another Russian adventure at Zhivago. I wonder who I should start with first. While I ponder that thought, think about going to Zhivago and falling in love with some good food.