There is no such thing as a cursed location, only cursed businesses (and bad landlords). But a reviewer does begin to question the validity of that statement on his third visit to the same address in a handful of years. Proof that 30519 Pinetree is under no hex can be found in its track record. For nearly 40 years, the Lion & Lamb did a brisk business from that subterranean setting. In the very short time since that restaurant closed, however, two restaurants have come and gone: Tannour and Joe Foodies Tavern. The latest tenant, Restaurant Europa, is hoping to reverse the trend.
So, what popular cuisine are the owners of this new bistro banking on to fill seats? Um, er, Russian.
Before visiting Europa, what I knew about Russian cuisine could fit inside a shot glass. Literally. Apart from ice-cold belts of vodka, little else came to mind. Well, vodka and caviar. What I didn't expect to find was a restaurant menu that reads like a Shabbat dinner. There's matzo-ball soup, gefilte fish, potato latkes, chopped liver. The only thing missing is the blessing over the wine.
Now, I love Jewish soul food as much as the next boychick, but am I willing to pay good money for something my own mother could have delivered from Corky & Lenny's? Like most things involving one's mother, the answer is complicated.
For starters, at Europa the execution of those items generally is very good. But more important, the menu goes well beyond everyday delicatessen. Traditional Eastern European dishes like stuffed cabbage, beef stroganoff and pork cutlets are merged with more familiar Western European items like pasta, beef wellington and chops. The result is a menu that allows diners to be as adventurous or as timid as they like.
On a recent weekend night, the restaurant was so crowded that we were seated in Siberia, a booth that could be no farther from the action. The action on this particular night was live Russian music (think "Hava Nagila" on violin), and much of the real estate was devoted to large-group parties gathered around platters of herring and bottles of Stolichnaya.
Meals begin with a basket of warm bread and a trio of flavored butters. One is studded with olives, another enriched with sour cream, which makes a number of appearances on the menu. It makes a simple but appropriate dipping sauce for a couple of crisp-edged potato pancakes ($3.50/side). It also accompanies an appetizer of blini ($8.50). More accurately described as blintzes, these delightful little crepe roll-ups are stuffed with various savory fillings, among them minced chicken, chopped eggs and mushrooms, and ricotta cheese.
To illustrate the menu's range, consider the soups. One could go the Gallic route with a bubbling crock of French onion ($6) or the Semitic route with good old matzo ball ($4.50). Following liberal dashes of salt and pepper, the Jewish penicillin is every bit as good as one would find at the deli. Salads too offer a world of options. While the grilled Caesar ($5) is a thoroughly American twist on a Tijuanian classic, the salade russe ($6) is a veritable snapshot of Imperial Russia. The simple but satisfying composition of chicken, boiled potatoes, eggs, pickles and peas is bound in a mayo-based dressing.
One might have to travel back to the Romanov dynasty to unearth Chicken Kiev. That or attend a budget wedding. But Europa's version ($14) is a revelation. The Nerf-football-sized entrée consists of breaded and fried white-meat chicken concealing a pocket of herbed butter. The butter did its job, as the bird is as juicy as wedding chicken is dry. Also a pleasant surprise is the babushka-approved stuffed cabbage ($12). Three plump, cabbage-wrapped bundles are filled with an earthy mixture of meat, rice and spice. The leafy casing adds an agreeable tartness with none of the characteristic off odors. Unfortunately, both dishes are weighed down by good but tiresome mashed potatoes and cold, undercooked vegetables that even a second-rate wedding caterer would be loathe to serve.
Apart from some minor touches, the space looks pretty much as it has since the Tannour makeover, which is to say, moderately attractive. One of the hokiest additions is the new "vodka room," where guests hungry for a taste of the former Soviet Union can don borrowed furs and sip potato juice in near-freezing temps. In reality, the "room" is a closet-size walk-in cooler without so much as a stool.
While Europa may never gain PETA approval, it already has garnered the allegiance of many Russian Americans, Jewish Americans and Just Plain Americans.