After dining at Russian Cuisine, what Portlanders will realize is just why vacationers on the Baltic or the Caspian seas are likely to spill ponderously out of their skimpy bikinis.
The food served at this Southeast Foster Road outpost may not be cutting edge, but it's certainly hearty and heavy: You'll find sour cream plopped on nearly every plate, draped over the edge of your cabbage-and-beet borscht ($3.50), accompanying the warm and moist buckwheat blini that come with caviar ($7-$16), and surrounding the glistening strips of salty herring ($5), cooling down the tart pickling spices. Sour cream sets the sautéed chicken livers swimming ($6) and provides the sauce for the buttery noodles topped with tender beef in the stroganoff ($9.95). A snowy mound of the stuff arrives with the bowl of chuck-laden pelmeni, the dumplings exposed like so many scattered boulders on Mount Hood ($8.50).
Don't let all this richness discourage you, as the portions served here are sized for sharing. You can build your own combination plate of three to seven dishes ($9.50-$17), with choices like a garlic chicken breast, moist with butter and lemon; a beef cutlet fried in sage butter and doused with mushrooms; various dumplings; or piroshki, the dense, fried, half-moon turnovers, filled with ground beef, onions and eggs.
A new owner changed the name in April when he took over what neighborhood locals are likely to still remember as Restaurant Russia. Russian Cuisine's menu offers dishes drawn from all over the Motherland: Its primer on basic Russian fare starts with an authentic and comforting earthy dark brown bread and continues with the ubiquitous blini ($5-$16), packed with sweet preserves or savory fillings like lox and caviar. You'll find dishes laced with sour, pickled flavors, such as the salad oliviye, a traditional concoction of chicken, cooked peas, hardboiled eggs and dill pickles ($5). In addition, there are meats and more meats, plus vegetables, including a splendid rendition of cabbage leaves stuffed with ground beef and rice and slathered with tomato sauce. You'll also find other hallmarks of Slavic cuisine, such as tvorog (curd cheese), with horseradish and dill used liberally throughout as basic flavorings.
My two dinner partners, St. Petersburg natives, claim the cooking at Russian Cuisine is on the informal side, the borscht as thin as you might expect in a student canteen. While the soup's flavors are vivid, my grandmother from Kiev might have turned up her nose at the Dostoevskian broth. This is folk cuisine, not the elegant cooking found in fine restaurants or on the tables of the czars.
My companions were horrified that the beef stroganoff had the meat ladled over the noodles instead of alongside ("beef stroganoff is not a pasta sauce!"). Despite this culinary heresy, the dish tasted delicious. While chicken Kiev ($10.50) is usually prepared so that butter bursts out of the doughy casing when you cut into it, here there was nary a spurt, the dough sadly far too thick and sodden. The pork chops ($11.50), while too thin and served a bit dry, were distinctively flavored, thanks to simmering in a broth of stewed cherries.
With such abundance it's hard to save room for dessert, but two choices here are worth the effort: the blessedly light lemon cake ($4.50), spiked with sugary walnuts and oozing with tart flavor, and the ambrosial honey cake ($5), its buttercream contrasting with a densely textured, moist cake.
The restaurant's liquor-license application is pending, so for the moment you can't knock back a vodka with your herring, which would be a true catastrophe for many Russians. Also missing is a samovar, or Russian teapot, and the accompanying glasses, which would lend a touch more authenticity.
But you can still drink in the sounds of 1970s Moscow music while appreciating the presence of a knowledgeable native Russian waiter. The large dining room is decorated with red tablecloths and saturated green walls, a Soviet version of Van Gogh's Night Cafe. On a cold, sleety Portland night, the Russian Cuisine provides food hearty enough to happily welcome a spy who comes in from the cold.
6439 SE Foster Road, 775-8989.4:30-9 pm Tuesday-Sunday. No personal checks. Credit cards accepted. Children welcome but seldom seen. $$ Moderate.
Picks: Caviar and blini, golubtsi (stuffed cabbage), vareniki, beef stroganoff, lemon cake, Russian honey cake.
Pelmeni and vareniki are both delicious little envelopes of dough--the Siberian-influenced pelmeni stuffed with ground meat and onions, while vareniki are often filled with dry curd cheese and potatoes.