Is there a Russian version of the Catskills? I can imagine caravans of middle-class folks streaming out of the city on the weekends to stay at resorts and vacation dachas in the mountains, dragging their teenage kids along. A vacation dinner isn't complete without drinks, dancing and a little live entertainment thrown in. Think Dirty Dancing, but with vodka and borscht and a Russian equivalent of Patrick Swayze. There must be one.
Think St. Petersburg Nights.
Is it a nightclub? Is it a restaurant? Is it a bar? Well, depending on how far you're willing to stretch your definitions, St. Petersburg Nights could be all of those things. Prepare to stretch.
The guy on stage is known as Boris and Sax; he's the jammin' cruise director of SS St. Pete Nights. He dances across stage in white pants and a flowery shirt, his eyes shrouded by sunglasses, alternating between blowing well-intentioned sax solos and belting out lounge versions of Russian hits. He's not so bad, but I have to admit that the Russian pop videos projected across the entire stage — and across the front of Boris and Sax — are a bit distracting.
Still, I can see where Boris — just like a real cruise director — could get people moving. He's the kind of guy who sings the songs everyone knows. If there was a crowd, I expect whole tables might start joining in for the choruses, but it's slow for a Friday. Other than my party, there are less than a dozen customers, and several of them are kids with their noses stuck in PSPs.
We groove to Boris's song stylings over giant bottles of Baltika beer and glasses of surprisingly good, subtly sweet Ukranian pinot noir. The Baltika brewery in St. Petersburg, Russia, is one of the largest in the world, and, perhaps in a holdout to less creative Soviet days, labels its different styles of beer with numbers. No. 1 is light and bright, while No. 8 is a passable wheat beer. Although we don't know it yet, we need this alcohol to fortify us for what's to come.
Early on, we were asked three times if we spoke Russian. None of us do — even after that long semester with Mrs. Barylski in high school — so they track down a few menus that have Cyrillic only on one side. The language gap gives me that culinary pioneering spirit. All this authentic Russian language must mean the food will be authentically good, right?
I admit to limited experience with Russian food, beyond some borscht, chicken kiev and a lot of vodka. I'm game for food outside my comfort zone, for unfamiliar flavors, for culinary exploration beyond my territorial borders. That's part of the gig.
What I can tell you about St. Petersburg Nights' food is that it's bad. What I cannot tell you is whether it's simply bad Russian food, or it's representative of Russian food, in which case it must suck to be Russian and have to eat it. I suspect it's the former. Standard-issue Russian food can't be this bad.
Where to begin? The Slavonic salad ($4.49). Think cole slaw with a runny mayo dressing, but replace all of the crunchy cabbage with shredded farmers cheese. Apples and walnuts cut through the overwhelming fat and oddly pungent cheese, but not enough to make it edible. I'm the only one at the table who makes the considerably difficult effort to go in for a second or third taste.
My guests make more headway with St. Pete Nights' "original appetizer" ($3.99), which is odd, considering that it is almost the same dish. Admittedly, this cheese is pliable and mild and in small chunks, but it's still bound together with lots of eggy mayo. Spread on warm bread, it is edible. Just.
A plate of cured fish ($5.99) — a bit of salmon, herring, and a few other morsels — are so, um, fragrant that no one else will try them. I'm game, though, and force a few bites down. Let's call them rustic, maybe a little past their prime, and be done with it. Please, can we be done with it?
All of us keep heading back to the fried potatoes with mushrooms ($7.99), which are fine, and the oniony borscht ($3.79), which is sweet with beet and made rich by the saving grace of sour cream, the best thing on the table by far.
Limp, steamed dumplings ($5.99) stuffed with grainy potato and onion are dull but inoffensive, while huge golden brown, fried pirogues ($7.49) are almost appealing. Leave it to a deep fryer to make even a basic ground beef filling worth eating. Still, a hefty amount of sour cream plays a part in getting both of those dishes down our gullet.
By this point, we have left significantly more food on our plates than we've eaten, a ratio that will turn more dramatic with our entrees: greasy stroganoff ($10.99) filled with extremely chewy meat; cabbage stuffed with rice and beef ($8.99), just barely on par with home cooking; fish ($15.99) that is so strong that even a thorough drowning in buttery sour cream sauce can't mask it; and a well-seasoned Cornish game hen ($13.99) cooked until the meat is shriveled from moisture loss. Chicken jerky, anyone?
We send mostly full plates filled with bad meat and fish and terrible mashed potatoes back with our cute and perky server, hoping that she has the sense not to ask us if everything is all right. She's smart enough to know not to bother.
Can you tell I'm trying to blow through the food descriptions quickly? Truth is, I don't want to trash St. Petersburg Nights. It's funky and funny and probably serves as a great hangout for the ample Russian and Ukranian ex-pat population on the Gulf Coast. At just two blocks from the beach, customers can saunter down to feel the warm water that drew them to Florida. It's kind of nice.
I can even see myself going back, for drinks and dancing, warm hospitality and the old-fashioned entertainment of Boris and Sax.
But not for the food.
Brian Ries is a former restaurant general manager with an advanced diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers. Planet food critics dine anonymously, and the paper pays for the meals. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertising.