RUSSIAN HOME COOKING
Article & Photos by Virginia Miller
RED TAVERN, Outer Richmond (2229 Clement St. between 23rd & 24th Avenues, 415-666-3420)
Childhood memories are richly intertwined with one of my dear girlhood friends in Southern California, a Russian whose mother and grandmother cooked meals that still haunt me. Sleeping over at her house turned into an event when her mother spent hours making homemade blintzes, tender, filled with fluffy, warm cheese. We’d repeatedly exclaim to each other that blintzes were coming, then sit down at the table with glee as we doused our blintzes in sour cream and jam. Never have any blintzes topped these.
Similarly, afternoons at her grandmother’s Whittier home reached their apex when she called us in from the yard for pirozhki (akin to Polish pierogi but baked or fried buns) filled with cheese or meat.
Just as I yearn to understand every category of cuisine as a way of getting to know a culture or a country, I crave Russian food. Thankfully, the Richmond District is essentially down the street, long fascinating me with its dense Russian population, churches and aggressive Russian mamas who shove their way in front of me in line at Russian bakeries.
One of my favorite Russian restaurants is Red Tavern, which opened quietly in 2011 on Clement Street. I’ve loved Katia’s for over a decade, and certainly get a warmer welcome there from the delightful mother-daughter Russian team. While the welcome at Red Tavern is not near as warm, service has been pleasant during each of my visits and I feel the conviviality of the place from fellow diners. Each visit I’m transported, surrounded by Russian families and the elderly, all speaking Russian.
First and foremost, I go for the food, each dish surprising with flavor and heart. There’s items you’d expect at a Russian restaurants: a bowl of borscht ($6.95), vividly red with beetroot, and a blini tower (2-3 people, $28) tiered with smoked fish and salmon caviar. Or splurge on 2 oz. Black Russian American oestra caviar ($68) with blini and condiments.
The dumpling/vareniky section (deemed “Dough Course”) gets me every time. Chicken, fried or potato dumplings ($9.95-10.95) please, but on the meat side, I prefer tender veal in Siberian vareniky. The ultimate dish, which is the must-order on the menu, are sour cherry dumplings ($12.95). Warm, tart and served (of course) with sour cream, they are the epitome of comfort. I could eat them for an entree, dessert, breakfast – any time – they are that good.
Ground blintzes ($7.50) are soft and meaty with shredded beef encased in paper-thin crepes, while a sesame-heavy red cabbage salad ($7.95) dotted with golden raisins and tomatoes, provides needed color and flavor contrast to rich dishes. More appetizer standouts include zucchini pancakes ($11.95) graced with smoked salmon tartare and salmon roe caviar, then drizzled in crème fraiche, or butter-dipped, delicately fried eggplant ($11.75) topped with a mound of eggplant “caviar” or essentially chunks of eggplant mixed with onions and tomatoes.
Entree highlights (besides dumplings) are delicate cabbage rolls packed with beef, rice, carrots ($14.95), or slowly-braised rabbit stew ($21.95) in a cream, wine, and shallot broth.
Portions are generous, the food homey and gratifying, the space blissfully not hipster or “buzzy”. But that doesn’t mean it’s not one of San Francisco’s best restaurants for experiencing Russian cooking. Though missing the familial welcome, it’s almost like dining in a Russian friend’s dining room.