Stolovaya is unusual, even for a Russian restaurant. Traipse in the front door and the first thing you see isn’t a stage with a woman in sequins belting out a song and pounding the Casio, but a red banner with a picture of Vladimir Lenin looking his fiercest. Further inside, the effect is multiplied by hammer-and-sickle motifs and posters featuring communist slogans. Are the patrons committed Marxists, ready to grab a brick and leap onto the barricades at the slightest provocation? No, for the impassive customers, who sit around the long tables alternately drinking fruit compote and vodka, this is clearly an exercise in nostalgia, tongue planted firmly in cheek.
Once the place was called Russian Style Ravioli, and it specialized in pelmeni (dumplings shaped like bulging navels) and vareniki (half-moon pierogi) stuffed with such plebian ingredients as mushrooms, potatoes, veal, cottage cheese, cherries, and cabbage. At Stolovaya both types of dumplings are still featured on the menu, 25 to a platter heaped with caramelized onions, for the unbelievable price of $4.95. The cabbage vareniki were a particular favorite one evening, the shredded vegetable slightly sweet and well on the way to becoming sauerkraut. Indeed, lots of things are mildly fermented at Stolovaya, including an omnibus pickle platter wherein half the selections are fruits. If you’ve never tasted pickled watermelon or pickled purple grapes, don’t miss the chance.
Stolovaya is not a restaurant exactly, but something more like a military mess hall — what the French called a bouillon in the early 20th century. It caters mainly to working men who are either unmarried or intent on getting away from their wives with a tableful of comrades. The food is plain and copious and so low-priced that three friends and I recently ate a ginormous meal of 12 dishes along with flagons of French beer, and the tab came to $103. Did I mention that the bill included tax and tip?
So, what’s good here besides pelmeni and vareniki? The herring app ($5.95) is a formidable-size fish, the lovely firm flesh cut into swatches and served with boiled potatoes. The french fries are some of the best in Brooklyn, made from cheap potatoes that stay soft and creamy inside with the skin partly intact, fried until they become as tan as Brighton Beach sunbathers at summer’s end. A big table-size serving is $4.95 (or $6.95 heaped with mushrooms), but since every dinner comes with a choice of fries, rice, or mashed potatoes, hold off ordering them until you’ve seen the entrees and decide you must have more.
Here are the best full-plate meals: Uzbek-style kebabs ($7.90 to $9.90) come two to a portion, featuring 10 hunks of chicken, pork, beef, lamb, or Chilean sea bass — which you should skip since the species in often unsustainably caught, or perhaps because its real name is Patagonian toothfish. The lamb ribs are gloriously fatty and fully absorb smoke from the charcoal over which they’ve been cooked. Chicken tabaka is a Georgian classic (referring to the former Soviet republic), a full bird flattened under a brick, cooked to a sienna shade, then paved with crushed garlic. You’ve never had better fried chicken, but sawing it with the dull knife provided may prove a challenge.
Anything called "cutlet" is great, including "country style pork cutlets" ($6.95) and the more elitist pork chop ($9.95), which is really just a pair of cutlets glued together by some culinary legerdemain, then battered and fried. For the heartiest appetites, beef stroganoff comes in a hollowed-out loaf of bread, meat plus mushrooms in a gravy thickly laced with sour cream. If you exercise the french fry option as far as starch goes on this entree, dipping them in the gravy is among dining’s greatest delights. There are seafood entrees, too, including whole fish skillet-sauteed — at $10 to $15, quite a deal. Other entrees reflect the czarist obsession with French food, including a not-very-good version of chicken kiev, and a much better "rabbit in white sauce," which sounds like something from Alice in Wonderland. In fact, the single best dish on the menu is French: holodets, a perfect bone-broth aspic dotted with morsels of chicken, making a sort of savory super-Jell-O.
At this point a caveat must be issued. Stolovaya (which means "cafeteria" or "canteen" in Russian) doesn’t give a damn about vegetables or your reverent attitude towards them. While the entrees with their attendant starches are voluminous, the vegetable component is invariably just shredded cabbage and a hillock of baby peas poured cold from a giant can. Usually, the Russian diners who line the tables leave peas and slaw behind. You may want to bring some fancier vegetables in from the outside to complement your meal. At Stolovaya, it’s BYOV.
Cost: Dinner for two including a serving of pelmeni, two main courses, and two half-liters of draft beer, including tax and tip, $30.
Sample dishes: Siberian pelmeni, achi-chuck (tomato and onion salad), grilled bronzini, lamb leg with vegetables, chicken tabaka.
What to drink: You can bring your own bottle of vodka on the down low, or enjoy Stella or Corona on tap. Non-alcoholic choices include compot fruit beverage; and kvass, made from fermented rye bread, with a very low alcohol content (typically, 1.2%)
Bonus tip: Absolutely don’t miss the pelmeni or the vareniki.