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Restaurants | Counter Intelligence

Russian Restaurant Beyond the Borscht

September 05, 2002|LINDA BURUM | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If you're like me, the mention of Russian food invokes images of borscht, blini and kasha, or maybe old-fashioned Russian restaurant dishes such as beef stroganoff and chicken Kiev. You won't find any of these on the menu at Traktir. What you will find at this new West Hollywood place is ethnic foods from the former Soviet republics.

Traktir sits just west of Hollywood's Little Russia neighborhood. The dining room opens out to the street, and the passing scene gives it the upbeat feel of an outdoor Paris cafe. But inside, the rustic pine tables and delicate Russian porcelains suggest a luxurious pre-Soviet hunting lodge (there's even a stuffed head of a wild pig mounted on one wall).

The crowd runs to attractive fashionistas and guys in Hugo Boss duds who might while away an hour or two gossiping over an Armenian coffee or a Lithuanian beer as they nibble on Traktir's outstanding zakuski. These hot and cold appetizers, the Russian equivalent of tapas, can make a marvelous meal by themselves.

One of the cold zakuski, salmon cured on the premises, arrives alongside a small platter of tiny, meticulously peeled potatoes the size of pecans. The potatoes are lightly anointed with garlic vinaigrette and a generous shower of fresh dill. At $5.95, the salmon is easily enough for two and rivals many an appetizer at a top-tier restaurant.

With the salmon (or marinated herring, also served with those tiny potatoes), you'll want the kubansky salad. Shimmering under a light cream dill dressing is a composition of tomatoes, tender Persian cucumbers and baby lettuces. Whoever selects the produce here has an eye for quality.

A single bowl of the robust Georgian soup kharcho holds a dozen or so whole garlic cloves cooked until they've melted like butter. Their sweetness permeates the lightly spicy tomato-beef broth garnished with chopped herbs. An even more substantial soup, pohlebka slovyanskaya, is afloat with tiny squares of Polish sausage, deep maroon kidney beans, olives and sauerkraut that somehow is scarcely sour.

After you give your order, complimentary samples of homemade infused vodkas are presented in hopes you'll want to order more, as well you may. The jalapeno vodka is nippy without being scalding, and the raspberry version has a mere breath of berry perfume.

This place makes wonderful vareniki. Those half-moon-shaped dumplings, which have a reputation for being heavy in this country, here resemble agnolotti: tender pillows with attractively chewy skins. A plate full of these beauties (with fillings such as meat, bean and mushroom-sauerkraut), lightly splashed with cream and sprinkled with smoked pork, are heaven on a plate. The smaller meat-filled dumplings called pelmeni are served in broth or with sour cream or vinegar.

With a nod to today's lighter tastes, the Armenian-style lula kebab may be made either from the traditional lamb or from ground chicken. Nevertheless, the $7.50 serving includes a whole lot of sauteed potatoes with mushrooms, not to mention a refreshing Mediterranean diced cucumber-tomato salad. Double-rib pork chops taste of a light marinade that really spikes up the meat's flavor and goes well with the chops' wild mushroom stuffing.

Chicken tabaka is a partially boned chicken flattened and grilled under a weight, like the Italian pollo al mattone. This Georgian specialty emerges as a tender, compact mass of intense chicken flavor. Roasted white fish with Parmesan "scales" could have used slightly less breading, but the dish is redeemed by the magical flavor combination of cheese and fish lightly scented with lemon.

Apricot preserves may seem like a weird dessert, but this isn't the jam you might expect. It's whole dried apricots, plumped by simmering in very light syrup; they taste like a pure distillation of sun-ripened fruit. You can also order ice cream novelties imported from Lithuania--not as good as a homemade dessert or, frankly, even an improvement over their American counterparts, but an interesting glimpse of what's cooking these days in the former Soviet Union.

*

Traktir, Crescent Heights Plaza, 8151-A Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. (323) 654-3030. Lunch and dinner, noon-midnight daily. Beer, wine and vodka. Complimentary lot parking. All major credit cards. Dinner for two, food only, $19.50-$50. What to get: home-cured salmon, kubansky salad, kharcho, vareniki, lula kebab, chicken tabaka, apricot preserves.

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