My only brush with a homemade version of Russian cuisine came in my early 20s, when I was struggling to cook on my own. My No. 1 dish for company at that time was hamburger Stroganoff, made with cream of mushroom soup; the recipe came from my only cookbook, Peg Bracken's I Hate to Cook Book. I've never forgotten this excerpt from Bracken's directions, which I rediscovered on the Web: "Add the flour, salt, paprika and [canned] mushrooms, stir, and let it cook five minutes while you light a cigarette and stare sullenly at the sink."
I wasn't sullen; I was proud of hamburger Stroganoff, but one untactful guest sneered. Possibly he started me on the road to the finer things of life, which don't include cream of mushroom soup. In any case, perhaps scarred, though it's not hard to make, I've never attempted the classic beef Stroganoff, which is one of the three dishes that Americans identify with Russian cuisine.
Allegro, though the menu bills the place as "European," is patronized mostly by people from the former Soviet Union — Russian Jews, Armenians, Ukrainians — but the staff is more than hospitable to the occasional interloper. Owner Garri Masmanov, who's Armenian, serves beef Stroganoff and chicken Kiev but no borscht. On the menu are herring and potatoes, blini with caviar, pilimeni (veal dumplings), smoked fish, sturgeon, and lamb, chicken or pork shashlik (marinated and on skewers). Lamb chops, steaks, salmon and shrimp scampi are the nods to more standard fare.
The restaurant was recommended to me by a Russian immigrant, and it seems to be doing very well, serving mostly large parties who come dressed up. The one big room has a small dance floor and a disco ball, and on Fridays and Saturdays after 9, a trio plays and sings live music, mostly Russian songs (but they take requests).
Given geography, you'd expect Russian cuisine to be hearty, and it is. For chicken Kiev, pound a chicken breast, wrap it around a big chunk of butter, then bread it and fry it. It looks like a tall, oblong chicken tender but, when you cut into it, butter squirts out — a decadent sensation. I found mine a little too dry and hard-shelled, and I'm guessing it was delivered by a food service.
Beef Stroganoff was better, with a rich mahogany sauce, although it was, oddly, sprinkled liberally with cilantro, which is untraditional. You can get it with rice or potatoes, the latter served in nicely browned chunks. Lamb kebabs are tender and generous. Don't be alarmed by chicken tabaka, described on the menu as "baby chicks" — they're just Cornish hens.
Many appetizers are more expensive than the very reasonable entrées (almost all under $15), but that's because they come in mass quantities, such as 12 eggplant rolls for $16; you can ask for a half order.
Masmanov ranges throughout the former Soviet empire for his dishes: kutabi, an Azerbaijani specialty that's described as tortillas stuffed with ground meat and topped with sumac, vareniki, Ukrainian dumplings stuffed, in this case, with potatoes or cherry filling, and tolma, Armenian stuffed grape leaves.
I loved the cold, thin-sliced marinated eggplant rolled around a creamy walnut sauce. It had the lush, sensual taste of eggplant just slightly leavened by eggplant's residual bitterness. Pilimeni (or pelmeni) are a generous bowl of small dumplings made with a simple flour-water dough, similar to potstickers, and stuffed with chopped veal. They're fairly rich-tasting already, and then you dip them into sour cream.
Less dissolute is a herring-and-potatoes appetizer. The herring is smoked and served with blanched onions. My companion had eaten vast amounts of this dish when he lived in Denmark and proclaimed it authentic.
Another appetizer is smoked salmon and butterfish, served with lemon and black olives. I was prepared for the familiar delights of smoked salmon, but the slices of butterfish, a fatty fish from northern waters, were even better, with a slight bacony flavor. Another starter possibility is blini with caviar, served in a martini glass. Or think about the Russian version of deviled eggs: The yolks are mixed with caviar.
Allegro is open only Thursday-Sunday and hosts many large groups and private parties, so call ahead for reservations. Needless to add, vodka can be had.
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].