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RESTAURANT REVIEW : The Czar Treatment : Glittery, lavish Arbat resembles a Russian Las Vegas. The quantity of the food is show-stopping.

April 09, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Anyone who misses the supper clubs of yesteryear should rush over to Burbank and sink into Arbat, a Golden Palace (I'm taking my metaphors directly from Arbat's full-color brochure) of rococo splendor and fine dining. If there were a Las Vegas in Russia, the casino showrooms would look like this glittery, lavish hall. It's named for a shopping street that might be thought of as the Rodeo Drive of Moscow, give or take a few million rubles.

The decor more than lives up to the name. You enter the enormous building, on a rather forlorn stretch of San Fernando Boulevard, through a formal foyer. A beautifully dressed hostess greets you, ascertains the name on your reservation and then leads you to your table. The Copa must have been like this in the Forties. There are even attendants in the restrooms, for heaven's sake.

You'll pass under crystal chandeliers through red velvet corridors, into a grande salle lined with long tables. All around you are gilded wrought-iron balconies, mirrors that double for the ones in the Winter Palace and ornately designed archways.

Come in a party of five or more and you qualify for the Russian banquet table. This means being greeted by an entire table of zakuski (Russian appetizers) the moment you are seated at a table decked in scarlet and white. Here's how the evening rates from there:

You nibble your way through a mountain of food while listening to tunes such as "Strangers in the Night," played mournfully by the Misha Shufutinsky band. There are Russian cold meats such as salami and rolled pork; wonderfully pungent and dense pickled herring; a piquant dish of eggplant sauteed in a rich, aromatic tomato sauce; squares of a cold Russian-style meatloaf known as kotlet ; thick slices of smoked sturgeon; mushrooms marinated in strong vinegar; a cheese plate, and various creamed salads perfumed rather heavily with dill.

That's not dinner. That's not even all the appetizers--the hot appetizers are still to come.

When the initial culture shock begins to wear thin, the evening starts to take shape. The waiter brings out refillable pitchers of soft drinks and your very own bottle of Smirnoff's or Napoleon Brandy, so that you can make like a Russian in a supper club yourself. (This isn't Russia, though, so no one comes around to insist that you actually drink the stuff.)

Then the lights go down and an enormous platform stage rolls out from underneath the orchestra. What follows is a 45-minute cabaret show featuring Russian songs and women dancing in unison with the skill of rhythmic gymnasts. And it's all good, clean, family fun, even if the music tends to be Offenbach's "Gaite Parisienne" (or even "Voulez-vous lambada avec moi?" ), rather than "Swan Lake."

Sometime during this spectacle the hot appetizers roll out. Boiled potatoes with dill. Good, doughy Siberian ravioli ( pelmeni ) with a garlicky meat filling. Barbecued spareribs with a bizarre, aromatic tomato sauce, the evening's only missed beat. It is a staggering thought at this point that main courses are yet to come. Blame it on those cold Russian winters.

When the show is over, the stage rolls back, revealing a parquet floor made for the tango. The five of us danced our way through a variety of main dishes, including the ubiquitous chicken Kiev, a dish you can't escape even in Mother Russia.

There's little special about any of these dishes, but perhaps my judgment gets clouded after an hour or so of eating like a Siberian coal miner. Shashlik is marinated, skewered lamb, pork and beef, traditionally cooked on a sword. The best one here would seem be the moist, spicy pork version, but by default--the other meats are cooked to dryness.

The tabaka is reasonably good, but may disappoint you anyway. Properly speaking it should be a hen, split in half, flattened and cooked crisp on a metal griddle under an iron weight. This plump, lemony bird has soggy skin. As for chicken Kiev, the thickly breaded breast of chicken with a butter and herb stuffing, I'm immune to the stuff, even to this one, cooked a beautiful golden brown.

Everything comes with a pile of fluffy rice that was undoubtedly cooked en masse in a giant pot, plus winter vegetables such as carrots and beans. Thankfully, there is no dessert, and you can stay until two in the morning to dance it all off. You may just want to.

Where and When Location: Arbat, 711 S. San Fernando Boulevard, Burbank. Suggested dishes: pelmeni , $7.50; herring Russian style, $4.95; lamb shashlik , $11.95; tabaka , $8.95. Hours: Dinner 8 p.m.-2 a.m. Friday-Sunday. Price: Dinner for two, food only, $30-$50 (Russian banquet table, served for parties of five or more, $30-$37 per person, tax and tip included). Full bar. Valet parking. No credit cards. Call: (818) 558-1358.

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