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I couldn't help myself. I just had to follow tennis hottie Anna Kournikova, who'd bowed out of the U.S. Open with a leg injury, around Publix recently and see what she was putting in her cart. Although she was born in Russia, Kournikova lives and trains in South Florida. And thanks to excessive media attention, we all know about the sexy little outfits she wears on the court, but most of us have no clue what she eats to keep her figure so newsworthy. Turns out she doesn't much care. Among her foodstuffs: a big cake from the bakery, a couple bottles of Mo&emul;t & Chandon champagne, Genoa salami, challah, and Vlasic pickles.
Poor Anna. I feel bad for her -- and not because she has a hairline fracture or because the cast with which she's been fitted takes away from those Lycra matched sets, one of which she was wearing in the store. No, I feel sorry for her because she's making do with Americanized jarred pickles rather than snacking on the homemade kind in a fine Russian restaurant like Metropol, located on North University Drive in Sunrise.
Pickles are important to Russians. Throughout history they've symbolized hospitality. Even peasants would offer bread and salt to visitors, accompanied by the traditional words of welcome, dobro pozhalovat. In upper-class households in the 19th Century, pickles (and luxury items like caviar) came to replace or enhance the pinch of salt. Pickles also complement vodka; they're offered by hosts to prepare guests' stomachs for the first of a series of shots. Finally, pickles are part of the zakuska -- "small bite" -- table, which, in Russian homes and restaurants, is often laden with fare ranging from steak tartare to beet caviar.
Chicken liver pâté
Grilled Cornish hen
Of course, in the United States, the pickle is a cucumber cured in garlic, cider vinegar, salt, and cloves, among other spices. Any other cured vegetable is referred to by name -- pickled tomatoes, for example. But in Russia, a "pickle" can be anything from a cucumber to a beet to cabbage to a tomato, and the best pickles are those made in-house. So for most Russians, eating Americanized pickles pulled from jars is the equivalent of a French citizen chomping on Wonder Bread smeared with chopped liver, rather than a fresh-baked baguette topped with pâté de foie gras.
At Metropol a platter of pickles includes cucumbers, turnips, and watermelon -- yes, pickled watermelon, which is simultaneously sweet and salty. For many Americans it may well be an acquired taste, but the pickled watermelon at Metropol was flabby and rubbery nonetheless. More-enjoyable forms of zakuskiat the restaurant included strips of pickled turnips, a few small scoops of pungent chicken-liver pâté, and several finger-length pieces of eggplant stuffed with ground walnuts.
Owners Marina and Vladimir Kolesnitchenko took over the erstwhile Istanbul a few months ago, a failed 220-seat Turkish restaurant, but kept the décor: dark woods, rich carpeting, and strings of white lights lining a peaked and paneled ceiling. They also held on to a few menu items, including Turkish coffee and a variety of shish kebabs. Still, Metropol is no Istanbul. The eatery is advertised as "European and Continental," and indeed the menu includes dishes that have universal appeal, such as escargots, shrimp cocktail, caesar salad, trout almondine, and veal Marsala. And they're quite good. We particularly enjoyed a juicy Wiener schnitzel main course; the veal was tender, and the fillet was breaded and lightly -- not greasily -- fried.
But if you converse with the wait staff and glance around the dining room on a weekend night, when it becomes a nightclub with flashing lights and live music and is filled to capacity with families sharing bottles of Stoli, then it becomes clear that Metropol is mainly a Russian restaurant. Reading the menu confirms it: Many of the dishes are accompanied by the regional Russian names for them, including the red beans with walnuts salad (lobio); the cold chicken in walnut sauce appetizer (satsivi); and the pork stew with mushrooms main course (podjarka).
It is interesting to note, however, that Russian fare draws influences from many countries, including Poland, Turkey, Mongolia, and China. This is why entrées at Metropol range from a ground-lamb shish kebab -- also known as lulia-kebab, the Georgian and Azerbaijani versions of the Turkish skewered meat -- to Asian-spiced dumplings, otherwise known as hinkaly. Served as a main course, the hinkaly were delicious puffs of noodle dough that had been steamed and filled with seasoned ground beef and lamb.
More-recognizable items include red borscht, the beet-cabbage soup that has infinite variations, and crepes filled with chicken, mushrooms, or caviar. The borscht was delicate and served hot with a dollop of sour cream. But ordering the crepe garnished with caviar was a mistake. Although I'm a big fan of sturgeon roe, I hate to pay inflated prices for it, so I settled for the cheaper red caviar ($11.99) rather than the more expensive black stuff ($19.99). The red caviar was too fishy, even when cut with sour cream, and detracted from the lacy quality of the crepe.
It would be easy to follow the borscht with stuffed cabbage, but tummies unaccustomed to all that roughage are better served with a meat entrée. I recommend the tabaka, or grilled rock Cornish hen. The hen wasn't so much grilled as it was split and pressed, the seasoned skin turned a crunchy golden brown while the flesh underneath it remained slick and moist. I'd ignore the vegetables that accompany the entrées, however; they come straight from the freezer section. Although the practice of serving packaged vegetables is common -- I've never been served fresh veggies in a Russian place -- I still dislike it.
The service at Metropol could also use improvement. Our servers were somewhat unfriendly and incompetent. I ordered a glass of pinot grigio from the wine list but received a glass of pineapple juice instead; when the waitress finally figured out what I wanted, she offered a selection of bottles with scarred labels. I chose the Meeny over the Eeny, Miney, and Mo, which turned out to be a fruity, overly sweet vintage, most likely from Georgia or Moldova, where most of the Russian wines are produced.
We were never even offered dessert. We were one of only two parties being served that night, but the other party was obviously Russian, and the servers catered much more to its needs than ours. First of all, all clientele should be treated equally, but I was also insulted because I have borscht in my blood. (My surname means "royal carriage-maker," according to some Russian dialects.) Metropol is providing some tasty, authentic fare, but it still has a long way to go to welcome all visitors with open arms -- and, perhaps, a pickle.