A taste of kiev in Beijing
Updated: 2012-09-02 11:14
By Pauline D. Loh (China Daily)
Butter-baked Stuffed Chicken is a moist and juicy main that you will want more of. Photos by Pauline D. Loh / China Daily
Stuffed Potatoes with Cheese is very satisfying.
Old revolutionaries don't die. They just open restaurants to relive their former glory. Pauline D. Loh enjoys a night of Russian songs and dishes - in Beijing.
The first time we went, the food was soggy, almost tasteless and can best be described as nondescript. The second time, 10 years later, the menu had changed, and there were selections which tasted much better in comparison. Last week, the food at Kiev Russ Restaurant was excellent, and almost as good as the music.
The music, of course, has always been good.
Kiev Russ has its own musical troupe recruited from the Motherland, although I suspect there are many Ukrainians among the present batch of performers, given the geographical loyalties and heritage links. Whatever their current nationalities, every one of the minstrels at Kiev has such excellent voice and timbre that they do not need any electronic help.
At 6 pm every evening, they start strolling among the diners singing revolutionary classics and folk songs - an all too-familiar repertoire with the older Chinese in the enthusiastic audience.
The restaurant is packed every day, and overwhelmingly so on weekends. You will do best to book your table a few days ahead, or risk a very long wait.
From our experience, this seems to be the favorite birthday party venue for the "educated youths", those zhiqing sent down to the factories, the army and the countryside to "learn" during the turbulent "cultural revolution" (1966-76).
They grew up on Russian melodies, and for many now in their 60s, these were the only pleasant memories left from their lost youth.
Russian folk songs from the wandering minstrels stir up nostalgia.
Nothing cheers them on better than Happy Birthday in Chinese sung by a trio of Russian baritones.
My husband remembers singing Song of the Youth League as he and other teenage students boarded the train in 1968 for Inner Mongolia. They ended up planting potatoes and naked oats for five years, interrupting their education to "learn from farmers".
Some did not return to the cities until the 1980s.
As the minstrels wander among the packed tables, there are many requests for favorites such as Evening in the Moscow Countryside, Troika, Malinka Kalinka and Hawthorn Tree. Often, the one being sung to is touched to tears, or moved to join the rousing chorus.
With such unusual entertainment as its main attraction, you can understand if Kiev Russ, in its early days, did not pay too much attention to its menu. But as Chinese palates get gradually sharpened by competitive international choices and the management wakes up to current market trends, the food is getting better and better.
I can hardly remember the meal I ate here 10 years ago, apart from vague disgust at diluted borscht and grey meat chunks smothered in tomato sauce with limp cabbage.
This time around, the menu made me sit up, and curious, which is always the first step to exploring good food.
At my husband's insistence, we ordered the beetroot soup again, as well as half a loaf of the dark, homemade fruit and nut bread.
My daughter wanted the garlic bread and my mother wanted the Kiev Salad Special. We also ordered stuffed baked potatoes, Kiev sausages, a potted beef stew with a pastry crust and a butter-baked stuffed chicken. There was nothing we did not like.
The borscht was well flavored and had tender cabbage, tomatoes and beet in a light beef stock. We shared two bowls, but felt we could have finished a bowl each.
The garlic bread was quickly demolished and the brown fruit and nut bread arrived in a huge basket. One glance, and we knew we'd be taking some of it home.
To be fair, the waiter did warn us that half a loaf would be too much for the four of us, but we had larger expectations than did stomachs.
The Kiev Salad Special is a potato salad that was very pleasant. The dressing was creamy but not over-indulgent and there were crispy bits of gherkins to provide the requisite tactile contrast.
I was pleasantly surprised by the sausages, too. There were four, which we immediately sliced into bite-sized pieces, and ate with a little hot sauce and bits of the braised onions that came on the plate. They were soft, succulent and subtly spiced, and had the right texture, flavor and color to make a palate-pleasing hot appetizer.
The stuffed potatoes were sculpted into cups, each cradling a meatball sitting on melted mozzarella. Although we ordered them as a side dish, I would quite happily go back and order this as a main course. The potatoes were tender, and the meatballs extremely juicy.
The potted braised beef with its pastry top was my mother's favorite, and she normally does not like red meat. What changed her mind was the soft meat with tender tendons sitting in a thick sauce flavored with fresh herbs, tomatoes and cinnamon. This was perfect with our dark fruit bread.
Our last main course was the chicken, and it came beautifully presented. Unfortunately, it came last, and we were very near satiation. But my daughter and I could not resist sharing a slice and I'm glad we did - the chicken was moist, and the stuffing very juicy, like a perfect Christmas bird.
Kiev Russ is a nice interlude if you are looking for something different, and celebratory. The music sets the mood, and you can safely experiment with the menu without too much risk. It is also very affordable, since the restaurant caters to a mainly Chinese clientele.
But, again, just remember to call ahead and book, especially if you have a large group.
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