There we were, the sole diners in a large blue room with silver streamers hanging from chandeliers, feeling the chill of Siberia.
But at the Ritza Restaurant on that icy night when the wind howled and Mid-Wilshire seemed desolate, the feeling faded quickly.
What I'm trying to say is that even though business may be in regression since the Georgian-Russian restaurant moved from its Hollywood Boulevard location, and the ambiance--banquet room decor--may be cold, the people are warm and the mom-and-pop home cooking is terrific.
"Where is everyone?" I asked the waiter, whom I suspected to be one of the sons of the cooks. My echo returned.
"Weekdays are kind of slow. We're busy on weekends when the Russian band plays."
Stilled instruments--drums and synthesizer--perched on the raised bandstand in front of the cavernous room seemed to be playing, anyway. Czardas, I think. It was that kind of twilight-zone night.
First Order Arrives
Anyway, the first order arrived. A group of tiny plates filled with several of the appetizers listed on both lunch and dinner menus was excellent and very fresh. A Russian chicken salad (olivier), sesame paste dip (hummus ) , an eggplant dip and green bean mash (pkhali) smacked of Armenian cooking. And why not? The cuisine throughout the southern region of the Soviet Union, from whence the owners of the Ritza hail, is definitely Middle Eastern, with Armenian, Arabic and Turkish influences.
There are shish kebab, lule kebab (ground lamb sausages on skewers), pita bread, stuffed grape leaves known as dolma in Turkish and a diluted yogurt beverage called ayran you would find throughout the Middle East.
But those looking for typically Russian dishes will find them aplenty, too. The borscht, a hot beet and cabbage soup dolloped with sour cream, was divine. Just the way Baboushka would make it. In fact, I doubt if you can get any closer to homespun Russian cooking in Los Angeles.
Beef stroganoff, although never a beautiful dish to look at, contained slivers of beef and lots of mushrooms. Tasty, and, I think authentic. I tried piroshki, the national meat pastry of Russia. The pastry was quite nice, although looking lonely on a plate by itself. The filling, however, was a bit dry and off in taste, perhaps due to the unusual seasonings. We'll have to try it again.
Among the Georgian specialties there is flank steak called solianka, a lamb and vegetable stew called chanahi and a lamb stew with garbanzo beans called pitti , which I did not try. The marinated and fried Cornish hen (tapaka) served with garlic vinegar sauce, which I did try, was particularly appealing.
All dinner dishes are served with borscht, a simple salad with a fine dill-flavored oil and vinegar house dressing, and rice or fried potatoes, which I also found wonderful. The potatoes are prepared variously: Frenched, steak-cut or sliced. We also tried an unusual walnut chicken with a rich, nutty-flavored sauce, which may have roots in Turkey, where a similar dish is almost the cuisine's signature.
Lunchtime was busier, and many diners were taking advantage of the wonderful borscht, which, with piroshki , would make a delightfully light and satisfying lunch; or the pita sandwiches filled with Russian chicken salad, smoked pork, steak, chicken liver pate, turkey or shish kebab.
Ritza Restaurant, 5468 Wilshire Blvd. , Los Angeles, (213) 934-2215. Open Monday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m.; Saturday and Sunday noon to 2 a.m. Food service until midnight. All major credit cards accepted. Reservations necessary on weekends. Parking in rear. Entrees with soup and salad are from $5.25 to $10.