December 6, 1999 | Insatiable Critic

Velvet Revolution

When Warner LeRoy bought the Russian Tea Room, loyalists cringed; when he tore it down, they wept; now that it's reopened, they're lining up.

        We are incurable new yorkers: we parvenus from the Middle West, we refuseniks and opportunists from the Baltics, we Latino charmers and Gallic cynics, even we few actually born here. We revel in the world's view that we are tough and cold and jaded, when in fact we are needy and exhausted, easily seduced by anything new, sure that at any moment we are about to be unmasked. And we are unabashedly sentimental, in love with our institutions. So of course we mourned the loss of a favorite hangout and muttered in outrage as Warner LeRoy took almost four years to find the cash, tear down the building, and install three stories of glittering banquet hall atop the glossy new Russian Tea Room

        Now we can scarcely believe how much we love it. The charming old brownstone exterior with its green-trimmed windows and red window boxes is gone. And the jury's still out on whether the second floor is sheer kitsch or irresistible kapitalism. But check out the new façade from across the street, the cavorting gold bear on glowing white. It's clever, a bit reminiscent of the gorilla hanging off the Empire State Building, but still rather Cartier. And the food, never a draw, is suddenly (mostly) wonderful. No one can quite believe it. 

        Well, believe it. The biggest surprise for all us doomsayers is not that the flathead sturgeon famously swimming inside the giant acrylic bear are already apparently dead, according to a friendly waiter leading us on a tour of the party room. They got pulled into the recycling system "and minced themselves," he says. The replacement, a bright-red goldfish, "went crazy when we walked by in our red uniforms and smashed into an acrylic wall." Those are trout swimming inside the bear now, "and nothing disturbs them," he assures us. 

        What really astonishes is how good the food can be and what fun it is to settle into this glorious red-and-green gift package of a room, tucked into a bright red banquette of softest glove leather, exploring the delicious depths of a fabulous borscht in its deep birdbath of a bowl. When his implausible alliance with David Bouley burst in a clash of egos, LeRoy beat the bushes for a chef willing to cook with a Russian accent. Classically trained Fabrice Canelle was game and seems amazingly able. Not that it's going to be a cinch for you to get in. One risks foundering on the shoals of the reservation system. Twice we get put on hold and are disconnected. Warner's pals have taken to calling him at home. 

        I've already decided the soaring and decadently outrageous second floor -- perfect for cocktail parties, perhaps -- is Siberia for everyday dining. So I panic one Friday night when the keeper of the reservation book tries to send us there. The crowd is already four deep at the bar, and newcomers tumble into the narrow entry behind us -- whining, demanding, cajoling. The poor girl is clearly traumatized. The maître d' pats her shoulder as if to say "Steady" and leads us past the glistening carved ice palace with its vodka-bottle turrets to a front booth that offers a full sweep of the room. Definitely New York tonight. Giggling, gossiping, guzzling caviar. Even 399 do-gooders from Great Neck at a benefit upstairs and scatterings of tourists can't taint the gathering of the clan. 

        Czar LeRoy's serving crew in updated red tunics lean in and out offering first-rate bread -- the rye especially is extraordinary, dense and intensely perfumed. If the zakuska ($24 for two) on a tiered silver tray are spotty (ditzy here, delicious there) and the manti, a kind of Russian ravioli, are a gluey disaster, the borscht proves a triumphant distraction. I like it cold (with cubes of potato) and even better hot, a marvelous meaty swamp with horseradish-spiked dumplings. Overhearing our raves, the waitress confides, "We have two hundred bushes." Bushes? I ask. "There must be fifteen ingredients to be a good bush," she continues. Ah, borscht. Yes, she is Russian. How Russian is the food, we want to know? "Very," she says. "Many Russians from the embassy and also friends came to early tastings. They helped the chef make things more Russian." 

        Alas, the greasy puff-pastry pirozhki that comes with the borscht does not equal the pirozhki of memory. Years ago, I listed the Tea Room's Wednesday-only kreplach-like pelmeni in chicken consommé with dill as one of the dozen best dishes in New York. Now, after two decades of Asian dumplings and creative ravioli, an entrée portion of the chef's pelmeni, with sauce boats of mustard and sour cream on the side, seems less of a thrill. Chicken Kiev squirts the obligatory butter but is dry and tough. I'm not sure why a $35 ounce of Osetra caviar plopped on a tiny baked potato costs $55. (Be warned: Dinner even without caviar can run $75 to $100 a person.) But seared halibut nested on scallion mashed potatoes is excellent, meticulously cooked. Grilled rib eye with silly but delicious star-shaped fries, wickedly rich braised short ribs, and the faintly pink (as requested) rack of pork all win over our practiced trenchermen. 

        So it goes at every meal: Dishes that don't work at all, like the tasteless striped-bass schnitzel. The merely edible, such as the listless coulibiac of salmon. And delicious surprises. I'll be back for more of the savory minced veal and chicken pozharsky I expected to hate and the equally luscious lyulya kebab (ground lamb that is about as good as a meatloaf gets) with saffron macaroni. At lunch the "Tsar's salad" needs work, but the blini royale -- layered with smoked salmon, scrambled eggs, and sour cream -- would make a fine Sunday brunch. Chocolate-mousse cake with coffee ice cream or the mint ice cream with chocolate-stuffed pastry purses are the best desserts. Though the tartness of apple and pear sorbets tucked into a rather utilitarian napoleon might be more welcome if you've overindulged. 

        Waiting for a guest who's late, our dinner stretches toward midnight, and we watch the congregation evolve. "It's become Las Vegas night at the bar," one of my friends reports, as the crowd shifts. Skirts get shorter and the faces hairier. He is particularly fixated on a Brooke Shields look-alike, finding it unbearably erotic when she puts on glasses to read the menu. 

        The longtime regulars are back, checking in to see if their former turf has been violated. Once talent agent Sam Cohn could always be reached at lunch on the house phone. In the cruel chill of the Tea Room's closing, he "ate around," as he puts it, till he found a sanctum at Michael's. Now he's back at least three times a week, and finds it "entirely reminiscent of the old place, except for the imperial eagles." 

        Faith Stewart-Gordon says she felt confident in selling her beloved Russian Tea Room to Warner because she liked his dream for it. So she's not totally surprised that she loves what he's done. "I got upset when I first heard about the bear and the glass eggs and the tree. I thought it would turn into an aquarium. I wasn't sure how he would put all those different parts together." Indeed, there were harrowing moments (before he found his corporate Daddy Warbucks) when it looked like LeRoy might have to spend his own money to finance his fantasy. And now if PETA doesn't sneak in to liberate the trout in his aquarium, we'll always have glasnost on West 57th Street. 

Russian Tea Room, 150 West 57th Street (212-974-2111). Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 5 p.m. to 12:30 a.m; Sunday, 5 to 11 p.m. Saturday and Sunday brunch, 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. All major credit cards.

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