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From Russia, with grub

Red caviar from Café Mayakovsky (photo by Debbie Lee)

It’s no surprise that Russian cuisine hasn’t taken off in our city. After all, its greatness lies in its heavy, rib-sticking quality — not exactly conducive to the appetite of desert-dwellers. But for those few blustery Siberian nights that strike Las Vegas each year, we should collectively rejoice over the arrival of two new restaurants on Tropicana Ave.

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The first spot, Café Mayakovsky (former Tverskaya Restaurant), occupies an unassuming building next to the former Liberace Museum. You would think that I could do without the projection screen of Lady Gaga’s entire videography, which aired throughout a recent visit, or the unflattering discotheque lighting that shined harshly on my Boyarsky Platter — a no-frills appetizer of cold, boiled meats with horseradish. I was actually thrilled. The Moscow hole-in-the-wall atmosphere suggested a real-deal Russian meal to come.

In other words: Don’t you dare make the trek just to order a grilled portobello sandwich or pizza margherita. Better to start with pirozki — tiny stuffed buns that are only a buck and change per piece. A beef-filled version is reminiscent of a simplified Chinese bao or White Castle slider. With its warm, fluffy crumb, it’s an ideal sponge for shots of icy vodka. Traditional borscht is also a comforting start, and nothing like the cold bowl of beet juice that you might expect. A warm broth, tinged pink from red cabbage slices, is enriched with chunks of beef and brightened with a shower of fresh dill.

The food gets richer as the meal progresses. An order of red caviar (or salmon roe) arrives with a platter of delicately folded crepes and gravy boat of melted butter. And classic beef stroganoff, bathed in sour cream, comes with two scoops of mashed potatoes for a satisfying entrée that straddles the line between grandma’s home cooking and an elevated Hungry Man dinner.

If you’ve filled up on starters, you always could settle for a plate of shashlik, or shish kebabs. The marinated beef tips, set free from their skewers, are adorned with only a few slices of raw white onion for an aggressive bite.

Service is friendly and the presence of our chef, who delivered some of our dishes in person, is exactly what I expect from a mom and pop like this.

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A few miles down the road, Green Dacha is the second Russian restaurant to show up on our radars in recent months.  The dacha, or summer home, concept comes through loud and clear on first sight: The restaurant is housed in a random, freestanding gingerbread cottage on the corner of a tiny outdoor shopping plaza. A quaint outdoor porch for hookah smokers calls to mind a misplaced Mount Charleston cabin.

But much like Café Mayakovsky, the interior is dim and delightfully sketchy, occupied only by thumping techno beats and the occasional homesick Eastern European.

The menu is also similar, with only slight differences in execution. The pirozki — or pirojki, as it’s described on this menu — is made with a flaky pastry rather than bread dough, giving it a richer flavor. The borscht comes in a larger portion but is thinner in texture, and the stroganoff is made with shaved ribbons of beef rather than chunks. In both cases, I preferred Mayakovsky’s versions.

The table also sampled a golden torpedo of crumb-coated chicken Kiev, but unfortunately the buttery filling was far too light on herbs. Redemption arrived in the form of vareniki. You may also know them as Polish pierogi. Like most peasant food, it’s a visual dud — a study in neutrals. The flavor is another story. The slippery pillows of potato-stuffed dough are drowned in a ladle’s worth of melted butter and highlighted with flecks of caramelized onion. It’s just the kind of stuff to warm up Putin after a day of a shirtless horseback riding.

Neither addition to our local dining scene is likely to spark a trend, but that doesn’t mean they are unwelcome. A city as large and diverse as ours deserves more ethnic dives like these. I only hope that this year’s groundhog sees its shadow so that I can brave the cold for another order of vareniki.

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Cafe Mayakovsky

1775 E. Tropicana Ave. #30, 702-848-1775, cafemayakovsky.com

 

Green Dacha

5795 W. Tropicana Ave., 702-485-4945, greendachalv.com