I make it a rule to not mention a restaurant in this space unless it’s the subject of the review, but I’m breaking it today.
You want authentic Russian food? Go to Artem/Eliseevsky on West Flamingo Road.
Which is not to say you shouldn’t go to Red Square at Mandalay Bay. There are a lot of things to like about Red Square; it’s just that authenticity isn’t among them. Think of the former as the novel “Gorky Park,” the latter as the movie.
There are plenty of reasons for the differences between the two, beyond the fact that one’s a mom-and-pop and one’s part of one of those evil corporate empires that are threatening to do to mom-and-pops what “home-improvement centers” almost did to hardware stores. The differences partially are dictated by their locations; wanna hazard a guess as to which one caters to the expatriate community (remember all of those Russian acrobats we employ these days) and which one mostly to Strip tourists?
Then again, wanna hazard a guess as to which one has decor that’s straight out of every fantasy you’ve ever had about Russia or the old Soviet Union? And which one serves a grilled Caesar salad?
Grilled Caesars are trendy these days, so I jumped at one ($14) at Red Square, even though I had vowed to at least try to stick to Russian or Russian-American food. As it turned out, it was not only novel but excellent, the slim romaine hearts lightly charred around the edges and sprinkled with a bit of Parmesan and just enough creamy Caesar dressing.
Steak tartare ($19, and also available as an entree) was much more authentic. The dish originated, if food historians can be believed, with the Tartars (or Tatars), who stuck slabs of meat under their saddles to tenderize them during their long rides from Mongolia to raise hell in Asia and Europe during the 13th century.
Today we’ve swapped the saddle for the meat grinder. In this version the beef had been very coarsely ground, lightly seasoned and served with a raw egg yolk atop. (When he brought it, our waiter’s assistant said our waiter would be by to mix it if we wanted, and indeed our waiter seemed almost disappointed when we told him we’d rather do it ourselves.) Prepared properly, the dish’s seasoning of capers and black pepper and usually Worcestershire take the edge off the raw flavors of beef and egg while complementing their richness, and that’s exactly how it was done here, with the capers predominant. With lightly crisped toast points, this was a very classic rendition, and a very satisfying one.
The chicken Kiev ($29), not so much. Oh, it was the latter, I guess, but certainly not the former. Chicken Kiev was, depending on which food historian you believe, created either in Russia or in New York, but at any rate it’s served in Russia these days. In the classic sense, it’s a pounded chicken breast rolled around a lump of herbed butter and sauteed until crisp; the best thing about it is that when you cut into a roll of chicken Kiev, the now-melted butter sort of oozes out, conveying the herbs.
No ooze in this one, although it was rather pleasant — moist inside, with a crisp exterior. A rice pilaf on the side contained lots of green peas and diced carrot, and the mushroom-Port reduction did much for both the chicken and the rice. I’d certainly order this one again, but it’s not what I think of as chicken Kiev.
That goes for the Strawberries Romanoff ($12), as well. Just as too many restaurants have denigrated the Kir Royale by making it with Framboise instead of the original Creme de Cassis, this Strawberries Romanoff was not soaked in vodka, as in the classic. Instead, the au natural strawberries were topped with whipped cream flavored with Grand Marnier or Triple Sec. Quite good, but not what we think of when we think of Strawberries Romanoff.
And, lastly, there was the Adzhika Pork ($29), flavored with the characteristic Georgian seasoning paste that includes hot and sweet paprika, fenugreek and a few other spices. The dish was slightly fiery, the pork moist and lean, and we particularly liked the Basmati rice pilaf with its apricots, pine nuts and cherries, and little salad of leeks and radicchio.
The lagniappes were up there; we loved the walnut-pumpernickel rolls, although the roll they call the “Greek Salad” for its feta and olives belies a focus on novelty above authenticity.
Service throughout was classic Strip, even down to the “still-or-sparkling” greeting that most places have abandoned. The decor is classic Strip, too, which is to say over-the-top, but we liked it. The restaurant’s name is subtly carried out in square red ashtrays, square red candle-holders, a red square in the floor by the door and even in the coffered ceiling. The theme is carried out with an onion-dome-topped chandelier, people’s-republic-style murals, Lenin’s body near the door and head inside the vodka cellar, a CCCP (remember that?) over the door and an extensive list of vodkas and caviars, although both are international in nature.
The wine list is classic Strip as well; even the glasses we had with dinner, though quite nice and properly served, were $14 and $15.
At the other place, I think we can get a whole bottle of vodka for that.
Las Vegas Review-Journal reviews are done anonymously at Review-Journal expense. Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at 383-0474 or e-mail her at hrinella@ reviewjournal.com.HEIDI KNAPP RINELLAMORE COLUMNS
what: Red Square
where: Mandalay Bay, 3950 Las Vegas Blvd. South
pluses: Good food, though not particularly authentic.
minuses: Very Strip.