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Friday, February 08, 2019

Moscow on the Mohawk

From the Food Vault Dept.: I’ve been researching Russian cuisine for an upcoming dinner, which reminded me of a review visit I made in 1996 to an ambitious Russian entity. That it ceased to exist not long thereafter should come as no surprise. The mayor referenced below was trying to close down the city’s several strip joints at the time, a task that took much longer to accomplish, and even then I think the places simply died of boredom.


LATER, TRYING TO RECONSTRUCT THE EVENING, my wife and I had trouble ascertaining just what it was that pushed us into the realm of no-holds barred absurdity. The big birthday party, to be sure, and the Russian disco band. The mini-skirted, satin-bloused waitresses added an entertaining touch (and the worry that Schenectady’s fleshaphobic mayor might try to close down this place). Then there was the formidable menu, sporting such unusual items as “schti,” which our waitress wouldn’t describe because the kitchen was out of it, so why bother?

This photo has nothing to do with the article alongside.
Troika – the name refers to the team of three horses that pull a traditional Russian carriage – occupies a building that went through a few incarnations as an Indian restaurant, interrupted by a few years serving Korean food. To put a Russian restaurant there is a delightful idea. The location does seem to be a kiss of death, though.

So my first question would have been about that location. Unfortunately, my follow-up phone calls to manager Ella were unsuccessful – she was too busy with customers to talk one day, which is a good sign; but she couldn’t honor our phone appointment the next day, however, because “she’s having some trouble with the boss,” the phone-answerer whispered, explaining, “I’m just a friend who stopped by to visit today.”

We can only infer that, as with the mother country, the politics at Troika are weird. Already there’s been one putsch during its three months of existence, jettisoning a chef and an owner (I got this info from a recent Schenectady Gazette review, which also told me that for once Peg Churchill Wright and I had very similar experiences).

But I want to hold my next birthday party here. When my wife and I visited, a few evenings ago, we were seated beside a long assembly of tables set for a big party – probably close to 20 people. Even before the party arrived, however, the band set up.

Dinner at Troika means music. I don’t know if this happens every night, but certainly on weekends. The ensemble is from New York, I was told that night, and comprised two instrumentalists and a scantily-clad girl singer. Disco obviously prevails – that throbbing beat accompanied the recorded stuff playing as we entered, and it took over in a big way once the keyboardist kicked his rhythm box into gear. I know absolutely nothing of Russian popular songs, although there seems to be no equivalent to our own “Happy Birthday,” which was sung to the lucky fellow at the big table once that party arrived, trailing an effluvium of perfumes and after-shave.

I was hunkered over a bowl of Ukrainian borscht as this took place, kicking off the surrealist part of the night. “Make sure you put a big spoon of sour cream in the soup,” our waitress instructed, adding that I should dip some of the dark bread, too. A rich, flavorful soup it was, with cabbage and onions to fill out the beet flavor. Susan started with vereniki, a tortellini-like item stuffed with cheese or cherries or potatoes – and she opted for the last-named. Sour cream was advised for that, too, which was served with onions both crisped and raw. Hearty eating!

Hearty drinking at the table next to us, where jugs of Stoli made the rounds. Interesting that the crowd was scented and the liquor was not. That thump-thump-thump by the dance floor was made all the more inviting by colored lights, and the birthday crowd started to dance. “You have to dance, too!” the waitress cried. I mumbled some lame excuse about all the left feet at this table. But she was right. We should have.

What with the party to take care of, service got a little slow – but we needed to recover some appetite before the entrées arrived. I’d ordered Russian tea and was served a glass of plain old orange pekoe, the promised samovar nowhere in sight. The waitress explained she’d misunderstood my order, so my next tea was of the Russian variety. Which only means that it costs a dollar more and you get a side of strawberry jam to spoon into it.

The entrées were massive, served on huge, decorative plates. When I asked for a recommendation of something “really Russian,” I was pointed to the Seafood Combination “Troika,” which also happens to be the costliest item. Which makes it a little difficult to trust the staff’s sincerity. But, “if you don’t like it, you don’t have to pay for it,” she said, and it was delicious. Arrayed on the bottom of the plate were the largest mussels I’ve ever seen, along with a sprinkling of shrimp and slices of salmon. The sauce was rich with garlic and onion, tangy and a great seafood accompaniment.

Susan the traditionalist went for beef stroganoff, a classic preparation in which the meat and mushrooms get a sour cream-based sauce. Although we’re used to seeing it served on egg noodles, here you had a choice of potatoes, rice or kasha, of which Susan chose the last: a wheat grain here served in a sauce obscenely buttery. The meat itself was stringy stew beef.

Needless to say, we couldn’t finish all that food. We chose a single dessert from the proffered tray of cakes, a mocha chocolate cake that suffered from refrigerator flavor. Obviously, food isn’t moving as quickly here as it ought to, and freshness suffers. I can’t imagine that Russian disco is going to be a huge draw, but I would like to try more of the unusual menu items some time.

Troika, 2209 Central Ave., Schenectady, 381-xxxx. Serving lunch Tue-Sun noon-3 PM, dinner Tue-Sun 3-midnight. AE, MC, V.

Metroland Magazine, 5 September 1996

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