I like to think Russia House Restaurant and Vodka Bar is a sign of Boca Raton's increasing sophistication. Boca is full of Italian restaurants and steak houses, high-end chains and homey delicatessens.
Russia House brings to Boca classic dishes familiar to those of us with Eastern European heritage. In my childhood, it was stick-to-your-ribs home cooking — infrequent, filling and inelegant.
At Russia House, it's presented with a whole new level of sophistication. I have never seen stuffed cabbage ($16) with mashed potatoes served on a long, thin, white platter, with a mound of steamed vegetables on one end, stuffed cabbage on the other. They use a combination of beef and chicken in what looks like Savoy cabbage. The rolls are served with just a little tomato sauce. The potatoes are fluffy perfection.
While the 110-seat restaurant wasn't designed for Russian cuisine, it seems ready-made. The booths and bar stools are upholstered in red. There are field-stone-accented walls around the room. Red poppies fill oversize white vases, and groups of white frames display Russian dolls, old Russian postage stamps and famous Russian landmarks.
The owners are Russian-born David and Sofa Shifrin and their daughter and son-in-law Elana and Zvika Zicherman. For 12 years, the Shifrins owned a Russian nightclub, Sugar Rush, and a restaurant, Lula Kebab House, in Sunny Isles Beach.
In their move north, they've decided to focus on classic Russian cuisine. So we started with bright-red Ukrainian borscht ($7), with just a few pieces of tender beef floating in the bowl. We had chicken-and-mushroom-filled blini with fried onions ($14). The Russia House salad ($18) is supposed to serve two, but four of us were pleased with the serving size. It's a simple enough salad with tomatoes and cucumbers, but made unique with the addition of manouri cheese, olives and the air-cured beef called bastruma.
There are other appetizers I know my father would love: cured herring with onions ($10) and warm potato slices; beef tongue with horseradish sauce ($11); and a smoked-fish assortment ($23).
I had to order the stuffed cabbage. Beef Stroganoff ($24), our waiter reminds us, is traditionally served over mashed potatoes, but Americans like it with egg noodles. The creamy mushroom-truffle sauce was incredible.
Chicken Kiev ($22), another classic, is a boneless chicken breast that's filed with butter and dill. It's crisp on the outside, buttery tender inside. Beef stew with potatoes ($23) is served in a clay pot that makes you feel as if you have your own pot of gold to dig around in while you eat.
Potato vareniki dumplings with buttery fried onions ($15) are also served in a clay pot. Vareniki are like Polish pierogies, but the exterior dough is the thinnest I've ever seen. Everything is made by hand in the Russian House's kitchen.
We didn't get to kebabs ($21-$38), and there are plenty of seafood options, including pan-fried whole flounder ($23) and baked rainbow trout ($24). Another time.
And those vareniki appear again at dessert, this time filled with sour cherries ($14). There are easily enough for four people to taste these delicate dumplings. Our friend was transported back to his Pittsburgh childhood and the kitchen of his Russian grandmother. I'd also recommend the Napoleon torte ($9), layers of puff pastry with vanilla cream. Cheese and sour-cherry blinis ($10) didn't stand up to the vareniki, but they were good.
I haven't addressed the Vodka Bar part of the restaurant's name, but Elana Zicherman tells me they have more than 70 varieties. Vodka really is the new tequila.
A one-man band of sorts plays from 7 p.m. until closing Thursday through Sunday. He sings in Russian, English and Italian, and many diners come here to dance. Even on a quiet Sunday night, a young couple was up on their feet when "Hava Nagila" came on. There's a separate dance floor close to the entrance.
This part of Boca — I once heard it referred to as SoPa, or south of Palmetto — is quickly becoming a one-stop international restaurant zone. The Spaniard is next door. Turkish, Greek, Japanese, Mexican and Middle Eastern restaurants are all within walking distance. Eating in Boca has never been better.
99 SE Mizner Blvd., Boca Raton
Hours: Dinner Tuesday-Sunday
Credit cards: AE, MC, V
Bar: Full service
Sound level: Can be noisy with live music
Outside smoking: Yes
For kids: Highchairs, boosters, menu items on request
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: Free valet