From Russia Without Guile

I'm always sucked in by the aura of mystery that surrounds Miami's Russian restaurants, several of which have popped up in recent years. Perhaps the cuisine -- which seems exotic compared to the fare offered by the glut of Italian and Cuban-American places here -- catches my fancy. Maybe it's the Russian restaurants' glitzy dining rooms, which have been known to include disco balls and strobe lights. Most likely, though, I'm intrigued by the fact that obtaining information about these spots requires the skill of a Cold War spy. Either I get the runaround on the phone -- passed from manager to manager, none of whom wants to admit who owns the place -- or I speak to a very guarded owner who won't identify himself and doesn't understand why his affairs are any of my business.

I can't imagine why no one seems to trust me.
So I was understandably thrilled by the initial breakthrough we made at Zhivago's, a Russian restaurant on Collins Avenue in North Miami Beach, when a waiter there, who also claimed to be the manager, handed us his card at the end of the meal. Finally, I figured, I'd get the goods on one of these eateries. But when I called and asked for Nathan, I was told that no one by that name worked there.

"Are you sure?" I asked.
"Of course I'm sure," the man on the other end of the line replied. "I'm Yul Armani, the owner. I don't have a manager."

That false lead seems par for the course. I never did discover who ran Babushka, a now-defunct restaurant in North Miami Beach, and the most I could get on Russian Fairytale was that a corporation owned it. At least with Zhivago's I got to chat with the Armenian-born owner himself, who opened the place as Cabaret on Collins a couple of years ago but recently renamed it Zhivago's. He added a Russian menu but kept the existing French-Continental one.

This is a rotunda of a dining room, with three tiers of tables and silver brocade banquettes leading down to a dance floor. Rows of spotlights are mounted on the walls, and a huge-screen TV featuring Russian pop singers clad in skintight purple who seem to be trapped in a Seventies time warp towers over the dance floor. The management also takes advantage of the restaurant's theater-in-the-round layout to present a group of roaming Gypsy singers, whose booming voices attest to the resounding acoustics of the restaurant. But hey, there's no disco ball.

Several items, such as the lobster-tail main course, appear on both Zhivago's and Cabaret on Collins's menus. But no matter which one you order from, the slightly tough but satisfyingly large tail will be prepared the same way -- in a creamy cognac sauce livened up with leeks and shiitake mushrooms ($20.50). The same goes for an appetizer of escargots, about a dozen meaty, dark snails in a tasty, garlic-spiked red wine sauce ($8.50). A Parmesan-heavy caesar salad was a strange garnish on this plate, we thought, but the romaine was fresh and green, so we shrugged and ate it.

The same salad accompanied a starter of julienne of duck in a wine sauce (from the Zhivago's menu). A hefty duck breast had been sauteed in a reduction of red wine, much like the snails, then sliced. We objected only to the pad of fat that remained under the crisp skin. A plate of pelmeni, on the other hand, benefited from some extra fat, in this case in the form of rich, thick sour cream. These pork-and-beef-filled dumplings were delicious, like delicate ravioli cooked al dente. Zhivago's offers single ($8.00) or double orders of pelmeni, the larger of which costs only a couple of dollars more. It's worth being greedy.

A truly Russian experience isn't complete without a platter of marinated vegetables ($15.50), which the restaurant calls pickles. "Nathan" showed us the proper way to enjoy the dill pickles, cured red plum tomatoes that had almost a carbonated fizz to their juice, and the beet-dyed cabbage. Throw back a shot of vodka, he instructed, then cut the sting with a salty pickle. It's the same concept as following a shot of tequila with a squeeze of fresh lime, and it works.

The server guided us away from a salmon entree; if you don't eat it within five minutes, he claimed, it dries up. Sturgeon would be the best fish to serve, he went on, but it's too expensive for the restaurant to carry and for the customer to buy. He also bad-mouthed the chicken Kiev because it wasn't traditional, the way he liked it. And he scoffed at our attempt to order the chicken shish kebab rather than the lamb shish kebab. In Russia, he noted, real shish kebab is made from lamb; chicken is for people who cluck at the thought of eating Little Bo Peep's loved ones. We had to agree with him after we tried the dish, huge chunks of musky, tender lamb skewered on a metal rod with onions and peppers, then grilled ($14.50).

But a veal chop main course, moistened by a mild, just-creamy tomato-mustard sauce, was riddled with fat. Though the veal had a terrific flavor, it was hard to cut, especially given the fact that my flimsy steak knife had an obviously broken handle; Nathan replaced it when we brought it to his attention. As for the chicken tabak, which Nathan recommended, we found it overpowering. A rock Cornish hen had been split and grilled, and the poultry was moist and fragrant -- inside, that is. But the bird was rubbed with so much pepper I practically sneezed every time I leaned over my plate, and the amount of crushed garlic on the skin would have made a vampire blanch.

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