Judging from my encounters with each, Siberia the restaurant has very little in common with Siberia the place. When I visited last February, the geographic region was, not surprisingly, cold and gray. I was in the company of an American expat living in Novosibirsk, the native city of the Georgetown restaurant’s owners, and he was no great connoisseur of Russian culture. Our meals consisted mainly of pizza. I had street-vendor shashlik a couple of times, caviar once. One of the few times I experienced something close to a traditional Russian meal was on my final night in town. The dish was plain pelmeni, meat-filled dumplings that most attendees of the birthday dinner chose to forgo in favor of the main course: vodka.
For now, you can forget about stumbling away from D.C.’s Siberia: You’re allowed to bring your own wine, but it has yet to obtain a liquor license. Nonetheless, the restaurant seems intent on introducing its patrons to a Russian-style pleasure principle solely through food and ambience.
Addressing the latter are two separate eating areas. The first is a small dining room dressed in dark wood and high mirrors, and outfitted with starched white tablecloths. It’s a classy, intimate room designed, it seems, for deal-closing. And sure enough, during lunch one day a sharp-dressed man breezes in, speaking Russian into his cell phone. His table has already been prepped with a bowl of fruit, a basket of dense, mildly sweet Russian bread, and a plate of smoked fish. When his companion arrives not a minute later, he acts as if he arrived extra early. “I already ordered,” he tells her as he stands with his arms extended.
Up a few stairs and down a narrow corridor is one of the quainter patios in town. At night, when it’s lit by just one overhead light (ask for a small table lantern), the brick terrace looks like a theater set, with everything but the few tables fading into the surrounding darkness. But during the day (or once your eyes get adjusted) you’ll notice a well-manicured garden, heavy vine cover, and several trees that have grown through a latticework fence to form a sort of canopy. Compared with most impressions of the restaurant’s namesake, it’s like eating in Eden.
Not content to confine itself to offerings from the frozen east, Siberia’s menu features items from all over Russia. Seafood dominates the appetizers, and if you’re partial to the sublimely intense saltiness of caviar and smoked or pickled fish, you might become a regular. Both salmon and beluga caviar are available fresh, served with a blini and a dollop of sour cream. The Baltic herring is generally great, briny and just a little tart, although one order includes a disturbingly bony piece. Our favorite is an assorted platter of smoked sturgeon, turbot, and salmon, slices of which are all soft and fleshy. There are also two platters of smoked meats and sausages and Siberia’s version of pirozhki, pastries that are squishy and bland on their own but come alive in the company of an order of the sautéed mushrooms mixed with sour cream and onions.
Russian salads tend to be of the kind you can eat either with a spoon or your hands; they eschew neat green leaves in favor of heartier pickled vegetables and chopped meats. The Ukrainian salad looks as if it has been delivered into the bowl with an oversize ice-cream scoop; it’s a perfectly rounded mound of peas, onions, and some assorted meats, mixed with either a mellow, creamy dressing or mayowe can’t tell which. The traditional Georgian eggplant salad is a wonderful, slimy, garlicky messbaba ghannouj minus the pita. Siberia’s Russian salad includes cabbage, but mostly it’s beets and picklesperfect to pick at along with some of the
Two traditional Russian soups, borscht and salyanka, both of which are excellent, are technically appetizers, though they’re each nearly as filling as a meal. Similarly, some of the entrees are like two-course dinners, with what basically are garnishespickles, olives, assorted vegetablesprovided in generous enough quantities to require their own plate. In the case of the shashlik, those side items cover the bottom of a long, boat-shaped dish, with the skewer of seasoned meat (chicken, pork, or lamb) balancing on top of it all.
Siberia’s best entrees are prepared delicately and are enough to warrant re-evaluating Russian cuisine altogether. Chicken Kiev, for instance, is a lightly breaded breast roll that makes me think that after eating so much garlic-and-herb-drenched fowl I’d forgotten what chicken actually tastes like. Chicken tabaka takes the opposite approach, presenting a baked half-chicken sticky with marinade and a side of sweet, spicy dipping sauce. Some Italian restaurants would do well to try Siberia’s salmon, which is covered in a light lemon-caper sauce and served over fettuccine.
Best of all are the items you probably know from the deli. Blintzes are available with chicken, cheese, or cabbage stuffing, and golubtzi, rolls of ground-beef-and-rice stuffed cabbage, are fabulous, sprinkled with just a touch of cilantro.
Not everything at Siberia is so enchanting. The servers are friendly, but the restaurant is understaffed. French fries are always soggy. Kvass, a Russian malt drink, tastes like flat beer, only sweeter. The beef stroganoff is noodleless, and it practically begs for some kind of starch to balance it out. It’s hard to blame the kitchen in some cases. Pelmeni, for example, is supposed to be served with sour cream and maple syrupit’s not Siberia’s fault that neither topping really belongs on a meat dumpling. Then again, if I return one day and can wash a few down with some vodka, I might think differently.
Siberia, 1564 Wisconsin Ave. NW. (202) 298-5512.
“We want to know about that cafe below Results,” one reader asks, referring to Aurora Basics Cafe. “Do you have to be a member?” No, but you’ll like it better if you eat like one. The drink cooler here is a good place to explore what the health-drink industry is offering these days. Honest to God, there’s one bottle filled only with powderjust add water and you’re set. Everything on the menu is offered on behalf of your overall wellness, and the chiseled guy with the airbrushed tan who serves me my herbed turkey breast sandwichquite tasty with sun-dried cranberriesmakes me think that might be a good thing. While the “low fat, high energy” snack chips taste like bark, I still credit them with leaving me feeling much stronger than when I arrived.
Aurora Basics Cafe, 1612 U St. NW. (202) 234-6822.
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