BALTIMORE, October 16, 2012 - Fall is a good time to do a daytrip to NYC, explore new cuisine and revel in the flavors that come from a chillier land. A great Russian meal and stimulating vodka all contribute to the sense that you’ve really gone somewhere different and tried new flavors.
Firebird Restaurant is steps away from the chaos of Times Square located in the lively, non-touristy international restaurant row in an area previously called Hell’s Kitchen.
It was in these surroundings that a real member of the Russian aristocracy — Baroness Irina von der Launitz, granddaughter of the mayor of St. Petersburg — decided to take a double townhouse and craft a destination that would be reminiscent of a Tzarist manor and also bring out aspects of her favorite Stravinsky ballet, Firebird.
For those unfamiliar with the history of the ballet, it’s about a magical, glowing bird that proves to be a blessing and curse to those who would be its captor. The ballet was an immediate success, putting Stravinsky on the map as an artistic tour de force of the 20th century. The combination of sets, choreography and costumes were beloved from the get-go. It’s against this backdrop that we realize how creative the Baroness was in her concept.
Today, FireBird is in the attentive hands of restaurateur Joe Valentine and his family. The decor remains gorgeous and opulent, yet don’t feel that you have to haul out your prom dress or interview suit for the occasion … though you could easily do that, too.
There are vintage photos and crystal glass collections adorning the walls. Even the lavatory has vintage apothacary and perfume jars. The colors and lighting are festive, not furtive. Russian pop music plays in the background. A special occasion would definitely shine brighter at FireBird.
Chef Paul Joseph, a Culinary Institute of America grad, learned his craft at renowned dining NYC food destination, Tavern on the Green. He has brought modern sensibilities such as farm-to-table items from nearby family farms in New Jersey, modern seasoning approaches and presentation to classic Russian dishes. This is not grandma’s Russian dinner. Some of his dishes have a real heat to them! It’s important to understand that Russian cuisine is living and evolution in food is a good thing. The menu covers what was called back in the day, “all the Russias”.
The service is classic “fine dining,” which means many dishes are prepared table-side. It adds drama to the evening and people like to watch tables having food prepared. Blini prepared table-side with caviar is a classic Russian start to the meal. Hackelback has a nice balance of roe flavor and saltiness. The presentation is with a light dab of sour cream — to let the caviar flavors shine through — with creamed egg whites, creamed egg yolks, minced red onion. Blini are medium-thick pancakes, round to resemble the sun in pre-Christian days. They are rolled into pirouette shapes.
Russians are the keepers of the vodka heritage. FireBird has an astounding collection from around the world — over 200 vodkas. They also infuse about 10 vodkas with natural flavors. Check out the honey, horseradish and cranberry vodkas. Horseradish has flavor, but not harsh bite. It would be perfect in a Bloody Mary or plain with a roast beef sandwich.
The honey flavor is rich, naturally sweet with honey and would make for a great after-dinner liqueur. The cranberry vodka is clean and slightly fruity, sneakily drinkabble.
Russians have a tradition of small plates/appetizers called zakuska. One starter is braised pickled pork belly with Szechuan peppercorn foie gras, candied citrus chutney and cilantro garlic coulis. The chutney is made with cranberries, nicely sweet-tart with citrus. That and the bright green coulis adds a nice color contrast to the meat.
The pork has a meaty ham flavor and the fois gras, generously portioned, is delicately seasoned. The Szechuan pepper does not overpower it.
Another zakuska is Lobster Versasia, with avocado butter, lemon citronade, harissa and micro herb salad. Those are newer flavors that provide an unexpected twist to the Russian menu.
A third zakuska is pure culinary genius invented by the chef: borscht cappuchino with gorgonzola dolce and cream foam. The sweetness and salty flavors go together so well and it’s a fantastic, modern take on borscht. Borscht is made in about as many different ways as there are villages in Russia.
Another standout dish are the dry diver scallops with kasha, tomato, onions and microgreen salad. This is a perfect example of modern touches on classics being a positive change. Savory seasoned with a nutty texture, they’re a fun side/starch.
Chicken Kiev is a classic Ukrainian/Russian dish of fried chicken cutlet rolled around herbs and butter. FireBird updates the dish with a seasonal take: sometimes, the filling might be a spinach/arugula mix or red chard or whatever else is a seasonal, fresh green. It’s a very generously portioned dish, cut table side. The chicken is tender and of the highest quality.
Russians also make beer and Firebird carries both Russian and Ukrainian beers. The Russian is a bit wheatier and heavier; the Ukrainian white beers are known in Russia as “bile” but that’s just a language thing.
The Ukrainian beer is sweeter, lighter and has a clover/floral quality.
Another dish is an Armenian lamb rack and filet duo, with potato lardon cake, caramelized root vegetables and Marchand de Vin Sauce, which is red wine sauce simmered with vegetables. The lamb rack is beautifully marbled and both meats are cooked properly — that is to say, they don’t have the hell cooked out of them, the way they would have “back in the Old Country”. They are both tender and juicy. The potato cake is a dish packing quite a bit of black pepper heat.
Russians do have a sweet tooth. For dessert, a great selection uses classic ingredients in a new way: a blueberry/pistachio/honey vodka gelato made in-house.
The alcohol lightens the flavors in a grown-up way, giving more nuances than just a plain frozen butterfat dish.
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