Monday, July 21, 2014

Infused With the Flavors of Russia

By Fritz Hahn
Washington Post Weekend Section

There were about 20 minutes before last call as I made my way into Russia House in the early hours of Sunday morning, and even before I entered the lounge, I could tell there was a party going on. Yelling and laughing spilled from behind the heavy wooden doors, though I couldn't identify the language. According to one of the employees hanging out in the circular vestibule, a bunch of staffers from the Embassy of Kazakhstan were living it up. I decided to order a shot of vodka and decided against telling Borat jokes.

That kind of thing happens regularly at the Dupont Circle restaurant and lounge. No matter what night you stop by, you're bound to come across revelers from the former Eastern Bloc: Ukrainians, Latvians -- maybe even Russians, including Washington Capitals winger Alexander Semin, whom I apparently just missed a few weeks ago, or even Alex Ovechkin, whom friends have spied enjoying a martini.

Unpredictable crowds can make Russia House feel like one of the exotic dens from a vintage James Bond paperback. Sumptuously decorated for an oligarch, it certainly has the right look: red silk damask on the walls, flickering chandeliers, blocks of richly veined dark green marble set into the woodwork and used as accents above the bar. (Even the men's room, down a tricky spiral staircase, is covered in marble the color of a deep forest.) The couples on one of the corduroy couches (hair-gelled guys with perfectly distressed jeans; blond women wearing tight dresses and spiky heels) might be Russians, or just internationally minded Americans digging the soundtrack of jazz-infused electronica. And what of the older men in rumpled suits, deep in conversation near the picture window?

What's in your glass is just as much of a draw as the late-night scene. On another visit, a friend and I sat on leather stools at the granite bar with tall, chilled shot glasses of Soyuz-Victan, a Ukrainian vodka infused with honey, red cayenne pepper and something called sweet-grass. We toast and shoot, tasting the smooth, herbal sweetness, which is quickly followed by a smoky burn. Next up: two glasses of Mernaya's On Milk vodka, which, surprise, is filtered with milk. Slightly thicker than what I'm used to, the clear, silky smooth liquor has a soft taste of grain.
There's not enough space to run down all the flavors of vodka -- there are roughly 90 on the menu -- which are filtered through birch buds, aged in Polish oak or mixed with cinnamon. "The American mentality is that vodka should have no taste," says co-owner Aaron McGovern. "But in Russia, they do." Take Russian Standard, which boasts on its Web site that it's "the number one premium vodka . . . in Russia." It's the brand McGovern drinks at home. It's viscous, with the soft flavor of rye and not a lot of burn. Definitely not a neutral spirit.

I'd be hard-pressed to identify (or even pronounce) all the Russian, Ukrainian or Lithuanian vodkas on Russia House's list, but unfamiliarity isn't a problem for most customers. "When people come in," McGovern says, "they don't want Grey Goose. They want a unique experience and a unique vodka. It's showing them the difference between Russian and French vodkas, or Polish vodka. You look over our selection and it's like, 'What the hell is this stuff?' People are curious. They don't see a pickle-and-garlic-infused vodka anywhere else." (For the record, the pickle and garlic vodka, distilled by Russian Garant, is wonderfully spicy, with just enough burn in the finish.) There are two ways to browse the collection: chilled shots or martinis. Shots can be done as an aperitif before cocktails, or drunk all night, Russian style. That can be expensive; a two-ounce serving might run $8 to $10, but it's an easy way to decide whether the Jewel of Russia lives up to its name.

More intrepid explorers (or the merely indecisive) should order the vodka sampler, Russia House's answer to wine flights. Pick six vodkas from the menu and a server brings a tall, round metal container filled with ice. Six tall shot glasses are perched in holes in the lid, keeping them cold until you're ready. At about $40, the sampler is not a bad deal, though it can get more expensive if you choose top-shelf brands, so ask before you order.

Actually, ordering a vodka martini is the better deal: You could pay $10 to $12 for a full glass instead of a two-ounce shot, and since fine vodkas shouldn't be ordered "and tonic" or "and cranberry," you'll receive nothing but straight alcohol. Of course, that's not a hard and fast rule. If you order Zubrovka, an aromatic Polish vodka whose bottle contains a long stalk of bison grass, your bartender might ask if you want it up, as a shot or with apple juice, the way it's often drunk in Poland, a pleasant cocktail that brings out a sweet apple flavor.

Russia House was at the forefront of the current craze for infused vodkas, steeping fruits, herbs and spices in large glass vats of Stolichnaya to create its own flavored drinks. The top seller is a crisp, summery blend of mango, pineapple and orange, though McGovern says that more women are ordering the fruity Wild Berry, which is made with blackberries, raspberries, strawberries and blueberries.

For summer, McGovern says he's working on adding new flavors, including cantaloupe, horseradish and Thai chili, all based on Luga-Nova, a Ukrainian vodka that's better than most household names because it's distilled five times and made from winter wheat for a heartier body.

If you don't want straight vodka, there are house cocktails, such as the Moscow Mule (a refreshing mix of vodka and ginger beer) and the tropical Red Velvet Punch. Even then, those are not rail drinks -- the base for most is Luga-Nova or some other brand.

Besides liquor, Russia House recently became the first bar in the Washington area to offer draft beers from St. Petersburg's acclaimed Baltika brewery. The unfiltered wheat beer (Baltika #8) is a fine summer drink and handsome in the traditional dimpled mug, but the strong lager (#9) has a mild malty flavor and no real distinguishing characteristics, other than its 8 percent alcohol content. Seven Baltika styles are offered in bottles; Bud and Miller Lite are not.

Russia House was opened in 1995 by Edward Lozansky, whose life sounds like fodder for a movie. Born in Ukraine, he worked as a nuclear physicist in Moscow and married a high-ranking general's daughter, but was forced to immigrate to the West after speaking out against the government. He used the building for the offices of his consulting firm and a Russian-language newspaper called Kontinent before deciding to create the restaurant and lounge. It was an impressive undertaking: Russian artisans were brought in to craft the woodwork and inlaid marble, and Lozansky hung modern Russian oil paintings from his collection on the walls. However, it was a semi-private restaurant and club with strange rules: Diners had to call at least a day before they wanted to visit and choose their meal in advance.

McGovern and partner Arturas "Jeepo" Vorobjovas, a former member of the Lithuanian taekwondo team, bought the restaurant in 2003 and opened it to the public. The one-room lounge was quickly filled with expats and vodka drinkers on weekends, often creating an uncomfortable crush. Russia House's expansion began in late 2005, when McGovern turned Lozansky's former library into the cozy Tsar's Lounge, adding a granite-topped bar and marble floor, setting marble panels into the walls and around the fireplace, and adding burnished wood to match the original lounge across the hall.

A new room helped ease congestion, but not enough. "People came [with groups] and couldn't get in," McGovern says. "Parties of six couldn't get a seat and would have to stand at the bar. People started saying, 'Let's not go to Russia House, we won't be able to get a seat.' " Last year, the owners began eyeing the building's second floor, which used to house Lozansky's offices. They spent five months building a bar, laying thick carpet and covering the walls with dark wood and prints of tsars. Broad round cocktail tables fill the two rooms, which have more than doubled Russia House's capacity, and the tables can be pushed together for larger groups.

The finishing touch was a grand piano, which is put to use on Wednesday nights by pianist Victor Prudovsky. He plays stirring opera songs and lounge music while Zourab Tsiskaridze, owner of the Russian Gourmet stores and a trained singer, performs like a Russian Sinatra. "Zourab is a friend of Victor's, and one day he just showed up and started singing," McGovern laughs, "and he hasn't left. Now he's practically on the payroll."

On Thursdays, violinist Rafael Javadov, a graduate of Russia's Rostov Conservatory, performs solo; the evening's program might include Tchaikovsky, arias from Russian operas or fleet-fingered versions of songs by the Police.

McGovern and Vorobjovas have more ideas up their sleeves, including a blood orange martini and new lighting for the building's exterior. But for now, they're just enjoying playing hosts at one of the city's most international bars. "The greatest compliment of all," McGovern says, "is when Russians come here over and over again, and they say, 'This reminds me of home.' "

AS SEEN on NBC: Fedorov Feels at Home at the Russia House

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The Russia House Restaurant & Lounge