March 29, 2004
Russian Tea Time

Russian food is not the first type I think of when I think of a good place to find a vegetarian dinner. Maybe it should be, based on my experience this weekend at Russian Tea Time restaurant in Chicago.

The name implies that only Russian fare can be found here, but the chef and owner Klara Muchnik is originally from Uzbekistan. Uzbek, Ukranian, Russian, and even Lithuanian fare is here and delicious.

Daniel Barenboim and other members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra are rumored patrons of this dark lush restaurant at the high-culture edge of the Loop.

Paul Goyette (of this site and locussolus) and I dined with our respective enamoratas (enamoratae?). Three of the four of us were vegetarian to some degree. We settled on two of the vegetarian plates for two. Paul added on a cup of borscht and I had a thick cup of vegetarian mushroom barley. Paul has had some experience with borscht and he praised this borscht unreservedly. My mushroom soup was rich robust and complex without relying too much on salt. It was also very filling for just a cup of soup. I began to see I was headed for trouble.

The vegetarian platter is delivered to the table in two courses. The first was a plate with potato dumplings, stuffed mushrooms, carrot salad, diced beets, beet caviar, hummus, and a tabouleh and vinaigrette salad.

The potato dumpling and stuffed mushroom were perfectly adequate. I'm not sure how you make something like that really special without going away from traditional recipes. The hummus was also well done. It went very well as a spread on the impossibly black bread that came with our meal.

The rest however, was beyond good tending towards fantastic. Opinions were split on the tabouleh salad, but I think that was more of a rejection of type than of the specific execution of the tabouleh, which I found light and refreshing. The carrot salad was sweet and just a little sour, with a nice vinegar touch not overwhelming the natural moisture and freshness of the shredded carrots. The diced beets were sweet, tender, and a wonderful deep red.

The best of all the dishes from the first course, however, was a beet caviar. I'm not sure exactly what was in the beet caviar beyond the minced beets, but there's some smooth, silky ingredient (perhaps a thick cream?) that makes the beet caviar a transcendental dish. Russian Tea Time refers to it on their menu as Legendary Beet Caviar, and it deserves the name.

The second course was good and filling, but didn't approach the excellence of the first course. The first course had focused on intense sweet flavors. The second moved to the earthy with stuffed eggplant, stuffed bell pepper, vegetable layered stew, mung bean stew, chickpea and onion stew, rice pilaf and kasha.

My wife scarfed up the chickpeas, leaving the eggplant and stuffed pepper to me. We both picked through the stews to pull the beets from them. It's hard to believe that I disliked beets so much until a few years ago. The school lunch programs should be sued for serving those floppy canned red disks they called beets.

We left a good portion of the platter for the dogs back of the RTT's kitchen (or wherever unfinshed food goes) and soldiered on to desert. Rebecca and I picked through the assortment of miniature pastries and Paul and his fiance tackled an impressive looking napoleon with raspberry sauce. We did wonder for a second if it were raspberry sauce or some inventive new beet sauce. We didn't enquire too closely about how the napoleon was because in short order both the mini-pastries and the napoleon were buried in the Kremlin Wall of our bellies.

The name of the restaurant is Russian Tea Time, and the tea I had with desert was excellent. A lump of brown sugar and a squeeze of lemon was perfect with the low-tannin tea.

The price was reasonable (about $95/couple with drinks and tip if I remember right), the food delicious. It was nice to find a restaurant that still caters to meat eaters while not relegating vegetarians to a large sald or a grain burger. Service was attentive, but not overbearing, and we even got a bonus cherry vodka shot (or two shots in one glass, really) at the end.

If you're down near the Art Institute, give Russian Tea Time a try.

Russian Tea Time
77 East Adams Street, (between Michigan Avenue and Wabash Avenue)
Chicago, Illinois 60603

Sunday and Monday: 11:00 a.m. - 9:00 p.m.
Tuesday-Thursday 11:00 a.m. - 11:00 p.m.
Friday and Saturday 11:00 a.m. - midnight

Phone: 312-360-0000
Fax: 312-360-0575

Reviews on Centerstage are very positive especially regarding the vegetarian dishes.
ePinions users rate it highly as well.
Reviewers on MetroMix give Russian Tea Time four stars.

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at March 29, 2004 2:35 PM | TrackBack Print-friendly version

I adore that place. My mother is a long-time member of the Art Institute across the street, and we've had many pleasant lunches there after/during/before a day at the museum.

Posted by Elisabeth on March 29, 2004 at 3:48 PM

I've passed this place so many times and yet found it a little daunting - the name made me wonder if it was just a place for tea? Now that I know, I'll definitely drag the Critic along there for a try!

Posted by Meg in Paris on March 30, 2004 at 10:37 AM

I was also under the impression it was this neo-Fascist restaurant with snooty service, but they really couldn't have been nicer. Something about the perfection of their presentation outside and in the entryway is intimidating. Once you're sat down, they're the best most acommodating set of servers I've had in a long while.

Posted by Barrett on March 30, 2004 at 11:12 AM

During our most recent visit, my husband and I ordered the vegetarian platter for two for dinner. In a word - WOW! I'm searching for a recipe for their beet caviar and ran across this site so decided to add my comment. On future visits to Chicago, we'll definitely be eating at the Russian Tea Time again . . and again . . and . . well, you get it!

Posted by Cyn from Michigan on September 29, 2007 at 9:50 AM

I see the last post was 2004 - it's now January 2010 and nothing has changed.
We walked past the window on our way to the museum and decided to stop for an early dinner on the way back to the hotel.
Everything - and I mean EVERYTHING was just as the reviewer described. We had the Russian Platter for two and it was just delicious!
My personal suggestion - have the "house tea" it's absolutely delicious and they keep refilling your glass all the way to the end of the meal.

Posted by Francine and Charles on January 31, 2010 at 7:37 PM

This is one of my favorite restaurants in the whole U.S. I used to go there whenever I went to Chicago on business. Now I don't travel for work and am dying for the beet caviar - does anyone know the recipe? Pretty please

Posted by Lee on July 23, 2011 at 6:13 PM
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