The Inquisitive Person’s Guide to Russian Supper Clubs

Girls' night out at Rasputin

Girls’ night out at the now-defunct Rasputin

What’s a Russian supper club? For our purposes, Russian supper clubs provide dinner-and-entertainment experiences in Brooklyn’s Russian speaking neighborhoods. The food and the type of entertainment vary, though you can expect the former to be plentiful and the latter to be kitschy. Supper clubs were popular in the U.S. in the 30s and 40s, and though they’ve never quite had a true resurgence, the concept has been heartily embraced by other cultures. Russian immigrants who settled in Brooklyn’s oceanside Brighton Beach neighborhood began opening these clubs in the late 70s and 80s. The oldest examples have remained gaudy time capsules of that era.

Where are they? The more established restaurants are located in Brighton Beach, with a few of the newer additions in Sheepshead Bay.

I’m not Russian; should I go anyway? Do you love serviceable, sometimes delicious Russian food? Do you love fun? What about dancing? How do you feel about kitsch and cheesy entertainment? Do you drink vodka? If these bring out positive associations, then you’re in for a treat.

Great! How do I pick a place? I’ve really only been to two, Tatiana, and the recently Fed-raided Rasputin. (And yes, that does make me an expert.) Though Rasputin is now, unsurprisingly, closed, Tatiana is still kicking. It’s one of the grande dames of Brighton, as is the nearby imposing National. I’d say both are good bets. Or, you can try relative newcomers Passage, Winter Garden Aqua Grill or Baku Palace.

Should I come with a Russian friend? Yes, if possible. They’ll be able to explain some of the traditional dishes and translate the ridiculous songs. If anything, having a Russian speaker present will help you communicate with waitstaff and busboys, some of whom don’t know a word of English. A friend at Tatiana wanted a new glass, repeated the word multiple times and even pointed to a nearby glass as an example only to have the waiter leave flummoxed and return with an English speaking cohort.

What do I wear? Your glitziest outfit. Dressing up for a Russian supper club is akin to dressing for a night out in Vegas or Atlantic City. For the ladies, anything short, tight, sparkly and designer label-clad. For the gentleman, a suit sans tie. If you have a gold chain necklace, all the better. I guess you can wear something understated, but this is more an experience than just a dinner-and-show, why not have fun with the clothes, too?

What do I bring? Liquor and wine. Enough for your entire party for the duration of the night. Many places are BYO and let you to bring in as much booze as you want. Neither of the ones I’ve been to charged a corkage fee, either. They don’t advertise their BYO policy, so be sure to call and inquire. Many also offer a free bottle of wine or vodka for every 10 people in your party. Plan accordingly. (In fact, at Tatiana, we were given TWO bottles of vodka, when we took too long deciding between the options presented.) There is absolutely no reason to pay for the overpriced alcohol.

What’s the food like? Good! Mostly. You can expect lots of salads, made with eggplant, or eggs and cubed potatoes, or tomatoes and cucumbers, or chilled seafood. Also, liver pâté, baked potatoes with mushroom and shashlik skewers. Maybe some sliced meats and lox. Main courses include grilled fish, chicken and lamb or duck. Pastry and fruit for dessert.

When do I go? Any time of year! Definitely on a Saturday night. Though more expensive, it’s also the most festive night.

Do I make a reservation? Yes, at least two weeks in advance, and it’s preferable to go with a large party for obvious reasons. When you call, make sure to ask for a table close to the stage and for one with an unobstructed view. Also, if you opt for a price fix banquet menu, which I suggest for ease-purposes, feel free to pick the cheapest option. It will be plenty of food, I promise. In fact, our first course at Tatiana was so extensive, we were sure they’d brought out the entire menu. For a Saturday night, this option is about $100, and is $15 to $30 less if you go Friday or Sunday.

When do I get there? Between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. is probably good, though you don’t want to get there too early since the music often doesn’t start until after 9 p.m. The best part? You have your table for the entire night.

What does a typical night look like? Oh, man. That’s a great question! What doesn’t happen? Cold appetizers are sitting on your table as you arrive. After you’ve been sitting a few minutes, they start to bring out the hot appetizers and offer you your free bottle of alcohol. This is a good time to crack open the vodka and offer a toast. You can toast to anything: friends, family, a guest of honor, if there is one. Most important, either be sincere or sound sincere. It doesn’t really matter in this context. Low-tempo music is being performed on stage. At Rasputin, it was a Kenny G-type on a sax with long, bottle-blond wavy hair. At Tatiana, it was a guy singing Jason Mraz. This is a good time to get in an awkward slow dance.

Around 9:30 or 10, the music ramps up, with renditions of 30-year-old Russian pop songs (as in, my mother, who left Russia in 1989, and does not keep up with the country’s current music scene, was happily mouthing the words to every single song) or American Top 40 classics from 5 years ago. There are usually back-up dancers or singers involved. The kitsch-o-meter is definitely rising. Around now, the main course is being brought out.

They do something special at Tatiana, which is, when it’s your birthday, they call you and your entire party out to the dance floor, so you can blow out the candles on your cake. A photographer then takes a ton of pictures, which he’ll offer to you at the end of the night for a a pricey $15 per photo. (It will seem like a good deal at the time.) Our party had a modest cake, but everyone had over-the-top fondant creations. Shell out for a nice cake if you want to compete. It’s all very Bat/Bar-Mitzvah-esque. In the best possible way!

And now it’s time for the show. At Rasputin, it didn’t start until 11:30, but at Tatiana, it got under way closer to 10:30. There is dancing! There are ridiculous costumes! There are mediocre acrobats! There is a woman in a box being stabbed with a flaming spear! It’s silly and cheesy and all-around awesome. Don’t be a cynic–just enjoy yourself. A few highlights: At Tatiana, a group of male dancers broke into a Fiddler-style wine-bottle-on-your-hat-dance, complete with faux Orthodox garb and stick-on peyos. At Rasputin, the female dancers started the show dressed as Eiffel Towers.

After the official entertainment, the music reaches its zenith, with pop-y and club-y Russian and American hits flowing one after the other. This is the time to get on the dance floor and “twerk”, or do whatever the kids are doing these days. This is also when they bring out dessert, which you can munch on between “twerks.” (That’s correct usage, right?)

There might be a lull in the music around midnight, but don’t worry, it’ll pick back up! At both Rasputin and Tatiana, we left around 2 a.m., with the music still thumping.

That was fun, now how do I get home? I know, right? That was crazy! There will be well-priced car service sedans idling outside as you leave.

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Summer To-Do List 2013

At the beginning of every summer, I get slightly anxious when I realize how fleeting the warmer months actually are. You can see it in the desperate faces of New Yorkers clamoring for outdoor tables near construction sites and congregating at “rooftop bars” atop two-story buildings. Granted, summer here is not as short as summer, in say, Barrow, Alaska, but often, the really nice temps don’t roll in until June and only stick around until September. It makes me feel as though I have to get the absolute most out of the season. And each year, I make a list to make sure I do.

Behold, the 2013 list:

Randazzo’s Clam Bar and a Brooklyn Cyclones Game

I’ve never been to Randazzo’s, the famous rib-sticking seafood joint, but have always wanted to try it. A few summers ago, we paired an outdoor crab lunch at Clemente’s Maryland Crabhouse in Sheepshead Bay with a Cyclones game, and it was a such great day. Seafood, baseball by the water and post-game fireworks– everything the summer’s meant to be.

View of the parachute drop from MCU Park

View of the parachute drop from MCU Park

Suburban Pool Day

This requires surveying your circle for friends from either Westchester, Long Island or North Jersey and then finding the ones whose parents still belong to their neighborhood pool. My husband and I spent a glorious day at Tarry Crest Swimming & Tennis Club on a grassy knoll, reading magazines, eating homemade oatmeal cookies and enjoying adult swim for perhaps the first time ever. (Sorry, kid-me, adult swim is awesome.)

Picnic in Prospect Park

We live right near Prospect Park, and though we use it for exercise, we often forget to use it for leisure. There’s nothing better than bringing a picnic lunch (here a few great places nearby that offer sandwiches and accoutrements: Bierkraft, BKLYN Larder and Zito’s Sandwich Shoppe), a good book and relaxing on a blanket under a tree on the Long Meadow. There are a TON of kids here ALL OF THE TIME, so if you want a truly quiet spot, you’ll have to search pretty hard on a really nice weekend day. People watching is half the fun, though! And those kids can be adorable. A few weekends ago, we observed as a toddler ran up to a tree, knocked on its bark, politely asked for two ice creams, then handed over some fake cash.

Prospect Park on a recent weekend

Prospect Park on a recent weekend

Met Rooftop

This one has been on the list for many years. My husband and I like to go on a Friday night after work (the museum is open until 9 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays), get a drink and enjoy the view. Afterward, we roam the Impressionist galleries, which are often blissfully empty that late in the evening. For dinner, make a reservation at Flex Mussels, try Jones Wood Foundry or the very-un-Upper-East-Side Meatball Shop once it opens later this summer.

Tomás Saraceno's Roof Cloud atop the Met last summer

Tomás Saraceno’s Cloud City atop the Met last summer

A Hike in Cold Spring, NY

This hike, known as the Breakneck Ridge Loop (don’t let the name scare you off!) is strenuous, but the views are spectacular. We don’t usually do the full loop, and instead hike up to the second or third clearing, then hike back down. Be warned: there is a very steep rock climb further up, which we have not done. There is a Metro-North Hudson Line train station right in the center of town, and you need to walk about a mile north on 9D for the trail head.  A refreshing beer at a bar on Main Street, after you’ve hydrated, of course, is a just reward. There are also cute cafés and antique shopping if you have the energy.

View from the Breakneck Ridge Loop

View from the Breakneck Ridge Loop

(Image via ScubaBear68, Flickr.com; made available under Creative Commons license)

New Jersey Slider Tour

My husband and I have been wanting to do this slider tour since Serious Eats first posted an article about New Jersey’s many sliders back in 2009. We’ve been to the White Manna in Hackensack on our way elsewhere, but would love to try a few others on the list. Plus, the joints have an iconic 1950s aesthetic. I’ve always loved Jersey’s diner tradition. It’s the perfect daytime activity with a few friends and a Zipcar.

White Manna in Hackensack, New Jersey

White Manna in Hackensack, New Jersey

(Image via Liz West, Flickr.com; made available under Creative Commons license)

Red Hook Day

A day in Red Hook, Brooklyn feels like a mini-vacation. We’ve spent many a full day here with friends, including my birthday two years ago. Here are a few ideas culled from recent visits: You can start with a good brunch, maybe at stellar neighborhood restaurant Fort Defiance. Or, a casual lunch of Latin American specialties at the Red Hook Ball Fields, featuring nearly a dozen food trucks surrounding an area soccer field. Follow that up with a relaxing few hours on a blanket at Louis Valentino Jr. Park and Pier. Then a coffee and a pastry or three at the famed Baked bakery. And now that it’s well into the afternoon, you can start drinking (responsibly, obvs). How about a pitcher at the blessedly low-key rooftop patio of dive bar and restaurant Rocky Sullivan’s or outside the large glass-plated doors at cocktail den Botanica, or even with a wine tasting at Red Hook Winery. Finish at Rocky’s with a well-priced dinner of all-American specialties, with upscale eclectic cuisine at The Good Fork or with miniature golf and seafood at the sprawling Brooklyn Crab.

A mural in Red Hook

A mural in Red Hook, Brooklyn

Hamptons Day

We’ve been doing a day in the Hamptons for eight summers. Tiana Beach near Hampton Bays (technically part of Southampton) is great because A) It’s closer than driving all the way out to the shmancy part of the Hamptons. B) It’s public. C) It’s pretty. D) There are facilities. Be sure to get there before 2 p.m. on weekends to secure your $20 non-resident parking spot. Bring a picnic lunch and finish the day with dinner at a nearby seafood restaurant like TR Restaurant and Bar or Cowfish.

Oyster Happy Hour

Ah, oysters, the most divisive of all shellfish. People who haven’t tried them often don’t want to because they look, well, like snot. Their texture, if they’re fresh and good, is more slick than slimy and they taste of the ocean: salty, briny, earthy, incredible. An oyster happy hour is one of my favorite indulgences and it seems most apropos to take part in during the summer months. New York magazine did a recent round-up and I’ve been dying to settle into a platter in the lush backyard of Maison Premiere. Here are a few happy hours I’ve enjoyed in the past: The Ten Bells, The Mermaid Inn, Lure Fish Bar, Upstate, Prima.

Oysters on the half-shell

Oysters on the half-shell

(Image via julesjulesjules m, Flickr.com; made available under Creative Commons license)

Bike up Hudson to Dinosaur BBQ

Though an outpost of this beloved Syracuse-based BBQ purveyor is opening tomorrow in my neighborhood, nothing beats grabbing a bike (you can either rent one at Pier 84 on W. 44th St. or use a Citi Bike) and pedaling up scenic Hudson River and Riverside Parks, with their pockets of manicured green, art installations and scenic across-river views, to the Harlem, 125th Street location. Grab some hot wings, fried green tomatoes and a sweet tea, and settle in for the afternoon.

Grilling at Brooklyn Bridge Park

My husband and I recently discovered the newly installed picnic tables and charcoal Hibachi-style grills near Pier 5 at this constantly evolving park. Labeled the “Picnic Peninsula,”  these tables, made from salvaged wood and topped with aquamarine umbrellas, would be a perfect place to spend a mild weekend afternoon, perhaps celebrating a friend’s birthday with fresh-grilled burgers and franks. There is a long, snaking line of picnic tables with enough space for many large parties.

Picnic Peninsula at Brooklyn Bridge Park

Picnic Peninsula at Brooklyn Bridge Park

(Image via ceonyc, Flickr.com; made available under Creative Commons license)

High Line at Night

As I’ve often said, the High Line is one of my favorite places in New York. Until now, though, I’ve only ever visited in the daytime. I recently saw a photo of a couple strolling the elevated park at night, illuminated by ground-level lighting and the glitter of the surrounding city. I knew I had to make a point to get up there after 9 p.m. The park closes at 11 p.m.–plenty of time to get in some nighttime wandering.

High Line in the evening

High Line in the evening

(Image via Susan NYC, Flickr.com; made available under Creative Commons license)

Prospect Park Concert

The Celebrate Brooklyn! series at the Prospect Park Bandshell is one of the mainstays of summer in the city. At most performances, a $3 donation is suggested, but a few are full-on benefit concerts with a $35 and up admissions charge. I don’t love fighting for a small portion of blanket space and getting angry when people block my view, so my friends and I like to sit outside the bandshell and bring a picnic dinner and a few drinks (technically illegal, but shh, don’t tell anyone). There’s a small hill south of the 11th street entrance from which you can see and hear relatively well. Take note: Belle & Sebastian are playing July 11th. I’ll see you there!

Baseball Game

A baseball game is probably on the summer bucket list of nearly everyone in America, and for good reason. Though I could never kill three hours paying attention to a game in the comfort of my own home, there’s just something about being outdoors, surrounded by people, cheering on your favorite, or favorite-for-the day, team. Since the game is long, there is plenty of time for food and drink breaks, and with the up-market concessions now available at both Yankee Stadium and Citi Field, plenty of choices outside of a Nathan’s and a Budweiser, though both are, of course, classics.

Yankee Stadium on game night

Game night at Yankee Stadium

L&B Spumoni Gardens

Summer isn’t complete without a slice of Sicilian pizza and a cup of spumoni at the picnic tables outside this venerable institution. These pizza squares are more pillowy bread than pizza, with a heaping serving of sweet tomato sauce and small clumps of gooey, melty cheese. There’s usually a line, but instead of grabbing the older slices on offer by the cash register, tell them you’re going to wait for the slices coming straight out of the oven. For dessert, try the namesake tri-flavored spumoni, a classic Italian layered dessert which, in this case, features a combination of vanilla, chocolate and pistachio ice creams.

A large square pie at L&B Spumoni Gardens

A large square pie at L&B Spumoni Gardens

(Image via TheGirlsNY, Flickr.com; made available under Creative Commons license)

Sundae at Brooklyn Farmacy & Soda Fountain

I adore the sundaes at this throwback ice cream parlor in Brooklyn’s throwback Carroll Gardens neighborhood. A rotating list of massive, not-for-the-calorie-conscious concoctions can be had at the long counter or at one of their cute café tables. The straightforwardly delicious chocolate brownie sundae, with a warm brownie, vanilla ice cream, hot fudge and whipped cream, tastes like childhood, but the Potato Head Sundae (vanilla ice cream, peanut butter, potato chips) I tried a few summers ago is indelibly entrenched as one of my favorites sundaes ever.

New Catch Holland Herring Sandwich at Russ & Daughters

Ah, June, the month of fresh herring. Celebrate the freshest catch from Holland (where this herring merits a nationwide celebration) at Russ & Daughters, either with their annual all-you-can-eat herring festival or by stopping by the shop between June 19th and mid-to-late July for one of my favorite sandwiches ever: a tail-on herring filet topped with chopped onions and pickles in between a potato hot dog bun. Alternatively, visit midtown restaurant Aquavit for a herring smorgasbord.

Me and my husband at last year's herring pairing

Me and my husband at last year’s herring pairing

Doughnuts in Unexpected Places

Let’s talk doughnuts. One might venture to say they’re the perfect dessert. Pillowy, buttery, sugary and carb-y, doughnuts haven’t met a day they couldn’t make better. They’re as much a part of American culture as Superman and movies about prom (seriously, how many do we need?).  New York City has a healthy collection of doughnut-focused purveyors, including standouts Doughnut Plant on the Lower East Side, Dough in Bed-Stuy and Peter Pan Donut & Pastry Shop in Greenpoint. Today, however, we’re focusing on something a little different. Here are a few places where doughnuts are an unexpected surprise, not the main attraction.

606 R&D

Paid for through the generosity of Kickstarter “dough-nators”, this restaurant’s doughnut machine makes small cakey doughnuts, which are sold plain or dusted with either cinnamon-sugar  or powdered sugar, three for $4 or a dozen for $15. I think all those who donated should feel vindicated. These doughnuts (available to-go or with your sit-down meal) are wonderful, with an appealing crust and a surprisingly moist interior, escaping the mealiness that sometimes befalls similar style doughnuts. Overall, one of my favorites on the list.

Doughnuts at 606 R&D: powdered sugar, plan and cinnamon-sugar

Doughnuts at 606 R&D: powdered sugar, plain and cinnamon-sugar

Brindle Room

This homey East Village restaurant known for its juicy burger and shareable comfort food also churns out fresh doughnuts. I came in at an off-hour and was treated to made-to-order doughnuts in three flavors: powdered sugar, caramel and chocolate hazelnut with sliced almonds (for $1.75 a piece). These doughnuts were so hot the powdered sugar topping had caramelized by the time I opened my to-go container. According to Grub Street, the secret ingredient is mashed potatoes in the batter. They did have a very unique taste–my favorite was the indulgent chocolate hazelnut–though may have spent a few seconds too long in the deep fryer.

A trio of doughnuts from The Brindle Room

A trio of doughnuts from the Brindle Room

Chinatown Mini Cakes, Several Locations (Different Owners)

Okay, so they’re not REALLY doughnuts in the traditional sense. They’re mini cakes, a Hong Kong street food made from a pancake-style batter that is poured into a special griddle (see below). The result is a web of quarter-sized ovals with a crisp exterior and a soft, slightly custardy center.  At 15  or 20 for $1, depending on location , they’re hard to pass up.

Hot cakes at Canal Street purveyor Ling's

Hot cakes at Canal Street purveyor Ling’s

DuMont Burger

Fresh, made-to-order doughnuts are available everyday starting at 11:30 a.m. at this go-to counter of Dumont Burger in Williamsburg. They can be had in a variety of sugar dustings–cinnamon, lemon or ginger–and, if you get the 9-order,with  dulce de leche or chocolate dipping sauces. They have a nicely browned exterior and soft, satisfying, albeit slightly dense innards. Three bites for $4, or nine for $6 isn’t the most amazing deal, but totally worth it for the MTO factor.

dumontburger

Cinnamon sugar doughnuts with a gratis–thanks to the lovely cashier–dulce de leche dipping sauce

Sullivan Street Bakery

These filled Italian doughnuts, or bombolini ($3.50 each), at bread whisperer Jim Lahey’s cafe -bakery are the bomb…olini (I’ll show myself out). They have a tremendous amount of flavor in the actual dough–a testament to their quality since yeast doughnuts not fried correctly often taste mainly of grease. The raspberry filling (one of several offered) is tart, sweet and potent, with none of the artificiality of chain-style jelly doughnuts.

Raspberry bombolino at Sullivan Street Bakery

Raspberry bombolino at Sullivan Street Bakery

Ray’s Candy Store

Not only is Ray’s one of the only places in the city to get freshly-made beignets to go, it’s also THE only place to get them at 4 a.m. after a raucous night out in the East Village. Ray’s has been an Alphabet City institution since 1974, and though the surrounding area continues to transform at some-would-say alarming speeds, Ray’s is a time-capsule of a grittier era, when the ‘hood was filled with junkies and artists. These perfectly serviceable beignets come buried under a mountain of powdered sugar. As in, I had to turn a few over in the below photo, so you could tell there were actual doughnuts hiding under those sugar peaks. Six will you set you back $3.50, or if you’re really hunger, you can get 12 for $6.50.

An order of six beignets at Ray's

An order of six beignets at Ray’s

This Is Why: An Ode to Subway Reading

Most New Yorkers would be hard-pressed to say they enjoy their commutes. They’re usually too long and the train too crowded; fellow passengers can be loud and obnoxious; someone’s taking up too much space or sneezing on you or–dear god–clipping their fingernails (yes, this happens).

But sometimes, even a long commute can feel blissful. I’m lucky to be able to travel on a fairly uncrowded train, and the 40 or so minutes I read before work can feel as relaxing as a deep tissue massage. I’m pretty easily motion sick, and the subway is one of the only modes of transportation on which I’m able to read. And I read everything: long-form essays, historical non-fiction, young adult literature, food magazines, fashion magazines, science articles. Often, I’m so into the story, I nearly miss my stop. It feels like a a bit of a brain workout and gets me mentally prepped for the day. I actually exit the train with a smile on my face.  A smile! On the way to work! I’d pick that over the stop-and-go of a car commute any day.

Reading list

Current reading list (usually not smiling after reading that top book, though)

*This is Why showcases moments that remind me why I love NYC.

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