Husband-and-wife restaurateurs chef Vladimir Gribkov and Varda Salkey originally came to the United States from Moscow looking to open a Russian restaurant in New York City, but Salkey says, "The feeling wasn't there." New York was already saturated with Russian restaurants; they needed a new market. But when Salkey's college friend Narrie Anderson invited the couple down to Austin for a visit, the couple didn't expect it to become their new home.
"I was actually surprised," says Salkey. "Being Russian, Texas is very western and cowboys." She "had no idea the city was this big, this open-minded." She and her husband tried to research Russian food here, but found none. "The city of Austin has so much potential," she says, but there was no Russian restaurant. "We were like, we should be the first one."
Their vision became Russian House, a homey, chintzed-out bar and restaurant on Fifth Street set to open later this month.
Chef Gribkov has twenty five years under his belt in the restaurant business, says Salkey, and he's worked in Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany. This is his first foray into cheffing on American soil.
"This is our first experience in America," says Salkey, and they want to give their guests--Salkey doesn't like to call them "customers"--"the feeling of Russian home."
People expect vodka, says Salkey, and they plan to deliver, with more than fifty kinds including Chef Gribkov's special infusions, which are different than American-style fruity vodkas. "It's a different and much harder process for us; they get infused for a longer period, some up to six months or a year." Gribkov uses berries and herbs, basing his infusions on classic Russian alcoholic cure-alls for digestion and other ailments.
"They're very rich in flavor," says Salkey. "It kills the taste of the alcohol. I love it."
Much like the menu, which includes Ukrainian salt-cured salo, Beef Stroganoff, solyanka and borsch, each room in Russian House is meant to give Americans a little tour of Salkey's home country, from the Eastern-style rugs hanging in the private dining room ("It's tacky!" says Salkey) to the patio that's like a "Russian workshop." Every little detail, says Salkey, has been shipped from Russia, "from the wallpaper to the very last piece of everything, we did ourselves."
That includes the Russian costume closet that will greet guests at the host stand: school uniforms, military uniforms, furry hats, KBG gear. It's all there for guests to try on and pose with, should the photo mood strike.
"I want our guests to fall in love with it," says Salkey.