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Violet's--russian Cuisine Without The Vodka

August 28, 1987|MAX JACOBSON

The minute we were seated at Violet's, a Russian-style restaurant in Los Angeles' sleepy Eagle Rock section, I knew I was in for an unusual experience. The waitress, you see, had a Southern accent.

I have this romantic vision of Russian restaurants, taken from old movies like "Doctor Zhivago," and older novels by Dostoevski. I picture a roadside tavern surrounded by coaches, and inside, noblemen and Gypsy musicians singing, drinking and eating caviar until dawn. Violet's is hardly like that--but it still manages to be utterly unique.

Owner Violet Pashinian was born in Shanghai and reared in Brazil. As a teen-ager, she came to Los Angeles, where her parents opened Kavkaz, a lively Russian supper club overlooking Sunset Boulevard. Today it is occupied by a place called Spago.

Violet married Andy Pashinian, also a Russian-Armenian, also born in Shanghai and also from a restaurant family. Five years ago, with Andy tending the stove, Violet opened her own restaurant. It's had quiet success.

Violet's is not what you'd call splashy. The restaurant, which attracts an older crowd, is distinctly lacking in chic. The dining room with its dark, shadowy ambiance looks like it was borrowed from the set of "Anastasia"; it is filled with dim chandeliers, czarist art, royally crested wallpaper and reddish-purple tablecloths. There is an illusion of dining by candlelight that borders on the mystical.

That illusion is further enhanced by the extraordinary chairs--plush, high-backed gray armchairs that were presented to the restaurant by Violet's brother, Mischa, himself a well-known local restaurateur. These are chairs you can sink into to lose your troubles; every restaurant should have them.

When you get comfortable, begin with a generous heap of caviar (beluga, sevruga or salmon), accompanied by the usual black bread, crisp rounds of toast, butter, chopped onion and boiled egg. Wash it down with a glass of fine, Mendocino County Champagne (or Laurent Perrier, if money is no object) from Violet's brief but intelligent wine list. You'll have to do without vodka. The restaurant is not yet fully licensed.

"That's a problem for Russian customers," said Violet ruefully. "They love our cooking but they like to drink vodka when they eat." They don't know what they are missing.

Appetizers are simple and charming. Pelimeny, little Siberian ravioli with a chopped meat filling, are thoroughly delightful. They are served Russian-style in a dilled chicken broth, or deep-fried like won ton with soy and sour cream. Pirojok are tiny turnovers stuffed with onion, bacon and ground beef. There is also a delicate addition from Armenia, dolmas, lamb and bulgur wheat rolled in grape leaves. They're remarkable.

At this point, the menu takes an eccentric turn, offering a wide choice of main dishes, including Chinese and Brazilian. Somehow the Russian dishes always seem the most appealing.

Main dishes start with a soup or salad course; my advice is to forgo the salad in favor of a wonderful borscht filled with chunked beef and cabbage. This soup is rich with subtle, lingering flavors. It will better ready your palate for what is to follow.

What does follow, if you want a real dazzler, is rack of lamb, prepared Armenian style, in a pomegranate juice marinade. It emerges from the oven tender and lean. With the exception of sturgeon caviar, it is the most expensive item on the menu; it is wonderful lamb and well worth the money.

Beef Stroganoff is light and delicate, a far cry from the floury imposter that has given the dish a bad name. Thinly sliced filet mignon is served with fresh mushrooms and sweet onion in a stock reduction that has been slightly thickened with sour cream. Chicken Kiev is also tasty, although a bit long on batter. It's a classic preparation, a breast of chicken that has been stuffed with herbs and butter before being breaded and pan-fried. At Violet's, it's done to a juicy turn, spilling butter with every forkful.

Dessert at this restaurant is mostly for the immoderate, but there are a couple of standouts. Sometimes there is homemade baklava. Always there is handmade chocolate that has been molded into a cup, filled with a richly textured mousse and topped with a Kahlua laden bonbon. Sublime.

At evening's end, an evening made more colorful by the presence of Raisa Dewar, a Russian singer and pianist, I decided to ask our southern waitress where she was from. "I'm from Kentucky," she said with a drawl.

What a disappointment. At least she could have said Georgia.

Violet's Restaurant, 1712 Colorado Blvd., Eagle Rock. (213) 255-4562. Open for dinner only, Wednesday-Sunday. Beer and wine only. Street parking. Major credit cards. Dinner for two $30-$50.

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