I distinctly remember the first time I stumbled across Russian House. Still new to Austin, I was walking around downtown when I spotted the familiar khokhloma pattern on the side of a building. Above the name Russian House on the outside side, smaller letters read, “Na Zdorovye.” “Noooo,” I thought to myself, “No, no, no, no, noooo…Et tu, Brute?”
I was surprised to find a Russian restaurant in downtown Austin, but even more surprised to find a Russian restaurant using the term Na Zdorovye. You see, “na zdorovye” is what foreigners believe Russians say as “cheers.” But no native Russian has ever said that while drinking.
The misconception probably finds its roots in the fact that “na zdorovye” is indeed used in some eastern European countries. But if you want to drink like a real Russian, learning one phrase and saying it over and over is not enough, my friends. Here’s what you need to do.
Drinking Like a Russian
Upon arrival, every guest at Russian House gets a shot of vodka, generously offered free of charge. Before downing your shot, give a toast–a short speech with a conclusion at the end. Russians don’t drink to health (which is what “na zdorovye” means) every time. You can toast to love, friendship, beautiful women, a bright future, or whatever you find important. Be creative! Then drink the vodka and chase it with a pickle. If you feel particularly hardcore, instead of biting the pickle, sniff on a piece of rye bread.
Russian House was named one of the best vodka bars in America by USA Today in 2017. So don’t stop at the complimentary shot. You can try any of the few hundred vodka varieties infused in-house by chef and owner Vladimir Gribkov. He uses fruits, herbs, and roots like grapefruit, saffron, rose, horseradish, ginger, and clover, to name a few ingredients in his recipes. Infusions take anywhere from a few weeks to up to a year to prepare. The process is laborious, but provides exceptional results.
Infused vodkas, or “nastoikas” as they are called in Russian, are considered to be medicinal. All the healthy components of fruits and herbs get absorbed by alcohol, so drink away! If there’s one place in the city where no one will judge you, it’s Russian House.
If you’re willing to splurge, pair your vodka with caviar. Even though it’s considered a typical Russian food, caviar is a premium product, and even Russians don’t eat it on a daily basis. I’ve tried it only a few times in my life.
Eating Like a Russian
While pretty much every Russian woman knows how to make traditional dishes at home, finding authentic ingredients in the U.S. can prove difficult. Pickled herring, good cottage cheese, real rye bread, decent mayonnaise, and kvas are almost non-existent. There are also time considerations. For instance, making pelmeni (Russian dumplings) or baking pirozhki (mini pies) from scratch can take hours.
But visit Russian House and open its extensive menu, and you’ll find “whatever your soul might desire,” as we say in Russia. Apart from traditional dishes like herring under fur coat (layered salad with pickled herring and boiled vegetables), golubtsy (cabbage leaves stuffed with ground meat and rice), or solyanka (spicy sour soup with several types of meats), you’ll find dishes from former USSR republics like Uzbek plov (rice with lamb, beans, and raisins), Mongolian cheburek (half-moon pastry filled with minced meat), and Ukrainian salo (salted pork belly).
Making a choice between so many options is almost physically painful. I’d sample every dish on the menu, but that’s not allowed. On my last visit, I ended up ordering a cheburek, solyanka, and beef stroganoff.
A good cheburek, a pastry filled with ground meat and herbs, fried in shallow oil, should be crispy on the outside and contain juicy meat inside. You know it’s a good cheburek when you take a bite and juice splashes out of the pastry. Probably don’t wear anything you really like while you’re eating it, though.
Russian House’s solyanka, a hearty soup, was thick, spicy, and had just the right sour kick. According to the menu, the chef’s recipe for solyanka was included in the “100 Best Recipes in USA” culinary book. Well-deserved, in my mind.
Beef stroganoff, possibly the most popular Russian dish outside of Russia, was tender and creamy. Funny enough, I can’t remember ever having beef stroganoff at home, but it’s always the one dish every foreigner knows. By the way, if you order beef stroganoff, choose buckwheat as your side, one of the most popular grains in Russia that you rarely find anywhere else.
People often ask me what Russian cuisine is and what a typical meal in my country looks like. It’s a challenging question to answer. It isn’t like Indian cuisine with rice and curry, or Italian with pasta and pizza. I can’t put a finger on the defining dish or main ingredient. But in my mind, Russian food warms up your body and soul. There’s nothing else I’d rather have on a cold winter day than a bowl of steaming hot borsch. And there’s no better dish to eat my feelings away than pelmeni with sour cream.
What Draws Me to Russian House
For me, food is not the sole reason to visit Russian House. I grew up watching my mom cook, eating at home three times a day. While I’m not a professional chef, I can whip up quite a few Russian dishes to satisfy my cravings, and so can pretty much any Russian woman.
I’m also not drawn to Russian House for a feeling of home or out of nostalgia. In a space heavily decorated with Soviet relics, I don’t feel at home. For a person born only a few years before the Soviet Union collapsed, the decorations are more stereotypical than actually representative of my homeland. I wish Russian House was a little–or a lot–more similar to the Russia I know: modern, stylish, and tasteful.
I know matreshkas, balalaikas, and icons on the wall are what Americans expect to see at a Russian restaurant, just like they expect to say “na zdorovye” while drinking vodka. But in a way, Russian House gives you a look into a Russia that doesn’t exist anymore.
My favorite space in the restaurant is not the main dining area or the private rooms, filled with souvenirs brought from Russia, but the former patio that was renovated and turned into a spacious, bright room. It has a large window facing 5th Street, a lot of beautiful natural light and, compared to the other rooms, is more minimalistic with long wooden tables and white walls. I could sit here for hours drinking tea, eating cake, and people-watching.
With all that said, what is it that makes me come to Russian House? After that first time of accidentally stumbling upon the restaurant, I’ve visited a couple more times. Once, for a Russian expats meet-up. Another time, on the 9th of May, Victory Day, which is widely celebrated in Russia, but not in the U.S. My Russian girlfriends and I spent the evening drinking tea and eating blinis with condensed milk.
And after those visits, I realized why Russian House keeps drawing me back. It’s the sense of belonging, the comfort of being among people who understand your native language, and–more importantly–your background. At Russian House, I don’t have to explain why the 9th of May is important, or what I’m drinking for. I’m free to use one of the hundreds of Russian sayings without having to begin with “there’s a saying in Russia.” I can make a joke that would make no sense whatsoever if translated into English.
But that is me. For Americans, Russian House is the place to take a picture wearing a ushanka hat while hugging a life-sized bear, to practice saying “da” and “net” to Russian waiters, and to have a first taste of authentic Russian cuisine. And that’s okay. Crossing cultures has to begin somewhere, and Russian House is a good place to start.
307 E. 5th St. – Website
@theAustinot wants to know:
What’s your favorite Russian dish?
Disclosure: My meal was comped for the purposes of this review. All opinions are my own.