If the XXII Olympic Winter Games have sparked your interest in Russian food, there’s no need to shell out a bundle for airfare to Sochi, Russia. You can experience the real thing right here in Chicago.
Red Square Square Café and Lounge in Wicker Park is a good place to start. While owners Alex Loyfman and Margarita Vizcarra are from Ukraine, the dishes on the menu reflect the melting-pot nature of Russian food from 1922-91 when it was known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
It was a heady time for the cuisine when the dishes of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakh, Kirghiz, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldavia, Tajik, Turkey, Ukraine and Uzbek elbowed for room with Russian stalwarts. The food of these former Soviet republics became so entrenched in the culinary repertoire, even a Russian would be hard pressed to tell you where a recipe originated.
Much like American food, where Cajun mingles with New England which mingles with Tex-Mex and so on, Russian food is a pastiche of exotic aromas and flavors. That’s what makes it so exciting. And you can disabuse yourself of the notion that Russian food is heavy and unhealthful. In fact, Russians grow much of their own organic produce in small garden plots or even containers on tiny apartment back porches. And fish is preferred over beef and chicken, although sausages still hold sway.
Chef Lil, who helms the Red Square kitchen, has been cooking for 45 years and is the great-great-granddaughter of Rosa, touted to be the chef to ill-fated Tsar Nicholas II from 1894-1917. Everything at the restaurant is made from scratch except the bread. Lil pickles her own tomatoes and cabbage, makes her own lox, and on and on. She is reluctant to share her last name in the same way she is reluctant to share her closely guarded family recipes.
"Even if I did, they wouldn’t turn out like mine," Lil says.
Her hubris is well deserved. The food at Red Square is good. Very, very good. Start with a traditional Ukrainian appetizer that has been appropriated by Russians – salo ($12). Eating this cured white pork fat requires a certain etiquette. First, a good amount of salt is sprinkled onto the center of a plate. Next a clove of peeled garlic is sliced in half, dipped into the salt and rubbed on all sides of a slice of rye (preferably black) bread, including the crust. Next comes a thin slice of salo followed by a dab of grainy mustard. A shot of vodka would be a more than appropriate accompaniment as it is served with all Russian zakuski or hors d'oeuvres.
Move on to chebureki, fried Russian hand pies or meat pasties filled with ground veal and pork in Red Square's case. This dish is borrowed from the Turks who call it çiğ börek. To Serbians, this is known as burek and it takes a round shape instead of a crescent.
Many of the items you will enjoy at Red Square come with a housemade condiment known as tkemali. This Georgian sauce is as ubiquitous as ketchup in the States, but the taste is entirely different. It’s made from a variety of sour plums, vinegar, garlic and lots of spices, and is available in red and green – red when made from ripe plums and green when prepared with unripe fruit. Chef Lil makes red tkemali in the spring when the plums are ripe, and bottles it for future use.
Before you tuck into a bowl of vegetarian cabbage borsch ($5-$8) and, trust me, you will want to, get your dumpling fix with Russian pelmeni ($8), tiny, veal-filled pockets of light-as-air dough, similar to Ukrainian vushka and Polish uszka or "little ears."
Getting back to the borsch – it has depth of flavor unparalleled among vegetable soups. Chef Lil says the restaurant goes through three stockpots as tall as she is about three times a week and it’s easy to believe this anecdote. The soup teems with cabbage, beets, peppers and is hearty enough to satisfy as a main course, and is orange in color – a true sign of authentic borsch. Conceivably you could dine at the restaurant for three weeks without having the same soup twice. But don’t stop at the soup.
Chicken tabaka ($15) is an excellent way to go. This dish of Georgian heritage gets its name from the word for "heavy skillet" – tapha. Red Square uses a whole game hen that is split down the breast, flattened, and cooked under a weight in a skillet or on a flat-top grill. Chef Lil smothers hers in a garlicky sauce that turns golden brown and crispy.
Another good choice is zharkoye ($13) – simple beef stew with potatoes in a rich sauce redolent of onion and rife with slow-cooked flavor. Chef Lil uses beef knuckles whose meat literally melts in your mouth.
Shashlik (15) or shish kebab is de rigueur when dining à la russe. This popular street food is thought to have been brought to Russia from Central Asia in the 19th century. Although conceivably any meat can be featured in shashlik, chef Lil prepares hers with large chunks of chicken accompanied by saffron rice with mushrooms, some would call pilaf or plov from Uzbek.
These are merely suggestions. The menu is large and the choices seemingly endless. Private parties have access to an unbelievable array of unique items that don’t appear on the menu regularly – gefilte fish and other Jewish specialties, all-vegetarian foods, caviar aplenty.
Speaking of caviar, for a true taste of Old Russia, check out the caviar blintz ($12), a thin crepe served with roe, hard-cooked egg, green onion and sour cream. Likewise, don’t neglect the excellent housemade lox $12) or Russian herring ($8).
By all means, save room for dessert. The Napoleon torte, a seven-layer custard-filled affair, is a traditional way to go. But sour-cherry varenyky ($9), or Ukrainian dumplings known as pierogi in Polish, also are a superior way to end your meal at Red
Don’t forget a glass of Russian spiced tea or pryanyĭ chaĭ. Yes, I said glass. Russian tea culture dictates being served from a samovar in a glass with an ornate metal holder. The tea I enjoyed with dessert had overtones of black currant.
Everything except the bread at Red Square is made in-house. Loyfman says the aim of the restaurant and bath house is to provide a myriad of services and enjoyments much as you would find on the real Red Square in Moscow.
Oh, I didn’t mention the traditional spa or banya services, did I? Red Square Café occupies a 110-year-old building originally used as a Turkish bath house. Loyfman and Vizcarra have preserved the original men's sauna and created one for women and a coed space as well. All the schvitz services Al Capone is said to have enjoyed here are still in place plus tanning, manis, pedis and more.
It's a hoot to see people clad in white robes and slippers come up to enjoy a meal and then go back down to the banya for another pampering session like a platza (dry sauna with oak leaf switching). Red Square is offering a 20% discount on all services to couples for Valentine's Day (check the website for dates).
Amenities include private party accommodation and special menus (vegetarian, Jewish) for up to 30, a four-room bed-and-breakfast on the upper floor, breakfast on Saturdays and Sundays (herring, housemade fried potatoes, sardelki sausages, salad, vodka), alfresco dining in fair weather, a large selection of imported and domestic wines and beers, and traditional and designer cocktails. Valet parking is available after 4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, and after 10 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays for a mere $3.
Reservations are suggested for parties of eight or more. Booking spa services online is coming soon.
I can't think of a better way to take a mini staycation. "Come early, leave late," is their motto, and that's just what a dedicated clientele does on the weekends. Give it a whirl and check out the Train Dining Room, where you get the feeling you're dining on the Orient Express with images of countryside whizzing past the "train windows." You've got to see it to believe it.
Red Square Café and Lounge
Address: 1914 W. Division Street, Chicago, IL 60622
Hours: 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 8 a.m. to midnight Fridays, 7 a.m. to midnight Saturdays and Sundays. Bar open later.