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