An English butcher once told me about visiting the U.S.S.R. and politely asking his Soviet counterparts what cuts they got out of a forequarter of beef. He was expecting to hear that they used the French method, in which the butcher separates out various muscles such as the filet, or possibly something like the English way of cutting across the muscles to get steaks and chops.
To his surprise, the Soviet butchers told him they didn't sell specific cuts. On socialist principles, they had laboriously worked out a way to chop any animal into equal-sized pieces containing equal proportions of meat, fat and bone.
This startled the English butcher, but it does go a long way toward explaining the peculiar vagueness of most Soviet cookbooks--whether a recipe is for soup or shish kebab, it only calls for \o7 meat. \f7 In fact, a lot of Soviet recipes don't even specify whether the meat should be beef, pork, veal or lamb. Soviet food, it would seem, is mystery meat wrapped in an enigma.
On the face of it, giving a restaurant a Soviet motif would not seem to be the most alluring way to pull in diners, but Gorky's Cafe downtown has done exactly this for years. Now there is a new Gorky's in Hollywood, and it's also crowded. This is an enigma in itself.
Of course, both Gorky's are cafeterias, and the suggestion of an assembly line is sort of natural. Some people must like the early Bolshevik air of idealism and ruthlessness, exemplified in the posters advertising Gorky's Beer (the Hollywood Gorky's is a brewery as well as a cafe). Gorky's is also a great place for conversation. The noise level is just high enough that you don't have to think about diners at other tables overhearing you, and since Gorky's is a cafeteria, there are no waiters interrupting to ask how happy you are.
I have a special theory about the Hollywood Gorky's, though. Hard as it may be to recognize, with the walls stripped down to bare brick and a scale model of a famous constructivist monument to the Revolution stuck in the middle of the floor, the Hollywood Gorky's is the site of the staid old Tick Tock (the Tick Tock's neon sign has even been saved and mounted on an inside wall). And in a way, Gorky's is a continuation of the Tick Tock.
Despite the Russian motif, the menu is largely reasonably priced American dishes like meat loaf, macaroni and cheese (pardon me, something or other \o7 al fredo\f7 ), and sandwiches with the utterly American addition of bean sprouts. And the food tends to be a little sweet, just as the Tick Tock's was. The very meaty "Russian chili" is on the sweet side and fairly salty as well (what makes it Russian is the teaspoon of caviar sprinkled on it). Among Gorky's beers, even the lager is pretty sweet, and the stout is practically a dessert.
You pick up your tray and take either the left line for salads and sandwiches or the right line for hot foods. The sandwiches are pretty good, and the best part about them is the fresh bread thickly sliced by hand, unless you think this is the worst part, because it's one of the reasons there's such a long wait at lunch. Also in this line are the huge and very good muffins.
The hot food line is where you find the Russian stuff, which is a little on the basic side, but easy to like (except for the dull, watery stuffed cabbage). The \o7 piroshki \f7 have a rather posh flaky crust and a peasanty filling of meat, potato and garlic. The beef stroganoff is the standard version in a simple and effective sauce of sour cream and dill.
One of the strong points about Gorky's is that although it's just a cafeteria, the vegetables are always fresh and not overcooked. The best of the side dishes seems to be the simple one of chopped cabbage fried in butter. There are a lot of pasta entrees, some with Russian names like pasta Karamazov, though they may be topped (generously topped) with a not particularly Russian mixture of chicken and vegetables.
There are people who think the best meal here is breakfast, which features lots of pancakes, such as a wheat pancake with walnuts in it (great) and a "fluffy oatmeal pancake" with raisins (approximately as fluffy as boiled oatmeal), and a lot of omelets. The Siberian omelet, filled with tomato, onions, peppers, Russian sausage and cheese, is a classic.
For dessert you go to the end of the salad/sandwich line. Gorky's usually has carrot cake and chocolate cake (kind of dry, but extremely chocolatey), and an apple pie that must be good because it's always been out whenever I tried for some. It's huge, as vast as a Russian novel, or a Russian movie, or the vast Russian land itself. It doesn't look at all un-American, though.
Suggested dishes: piroshki (1), $2.15; fried cabbage and kasha \o7 vareniki, \f7 $1.95; beef stroganoff, $6.75, Russian chili, $4.95; chocolate cake, $1.95.
\o7 Gorky's Cafe and Russian Brewery, 1716 Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood. (213) 463- 4060. Open 24 hours. Beer and wine only. Parking lot. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Dinner for two $15 to $30. \f7