You know when you have a place you want to try out that has been lingering on your to-try list foh-evah? ~KATIA'S RUSSIAN TEA ROOM~ has been gathering dust on my list for years. Glad I finally took out the feather duster and went to check out this place for lunch. In a word: charmed.
I would have liked to go and visit it again before mentioning it to y'all, but there was this pecan pie we had for dessert that was so damned delish, and since it's only around for the holidays, I had to write this place up quick. More on the evil pie in a sec.
Now, the room is not what I'd call a looker. It's an intimate, simple room that is a bit feminine, with some framed paintings of flowers and scenery on the peachy walls, plates with floral edges, and bentwood chairs that would benefit from some cushions. Anyway, there's no flash or pretension here. It's almost like being in someone's modest but tidy house.
But that is exactly why I liked it--it's comfortable, like a no-makeup day (ladies, I know you hear me on that one). And it's personal--Katia herself came out to take our order, talk a bit about the menu, and she even pulled up a chair to join our table and chat with us a few times. She's spunky, smart, earthy, and welcoming--almost like Gena Rowlands as Gloria, but nicer. Like, can I adopt you as my aunt?
The menu had exactly the kind of food I was craving on that rainy day, starting with the homey beet borscht ($5). Seriously, the best borscht I've ever had. It was a gorg ruby red, with ribbons of cabbage and petite pieces of potato and tomato in it, on-point seasoning, a beef-broth base, and a dollop of sour cream on top. (There's also a vegetarian version.) I want a gallon of the stuff to get me through January.
The menu has all kinds of zakuski (little bites) to choose from: we dug into the eggplant caviar ($4.50), a cool dip with tomato, garlic, dill, onion, and a slight kick, spreading it on the rye bread that was served when we first sat down. Dag, we shared the beef piroshki ($2.50), so it disappeared in a few bites--it had such a savory filling inside its flaky crust. Hey, where did you go? Next time, I will try the cabbage version! And the mushroom. And the beef again. (You can actually order these for parties.)
We shared the potato vareniki ($6.50 for five)--Katia kindly let us order a smaller portion, because it normally comes with ten for $13. The tender potato-filled dumplings are a bit bland by themselves, but come topped with tasty caramelized onions and sour cream. And man, these dense little carb pockets are perfect if you're working in the field all day, but for this desk-bound writer, one was plenty of this starch-on-starch item. I will admit they warmed up nicely for a late-night snack--soaked up the post-2am booze like an effective and edible sponge, spasiba.
The hands-down winning dish was the sautéed pel'meni ($13), almost like meat-filled Russian tortellini, with lightly browned edges, and a buttery curry sauce. Oh yeah, we scarfed 'em down like hungry foremen.
I gotta say, everything had an authentic homemade taste--I was quite content. On the list for next time: the blini, salade Olivier, the shaslik (strips of lamb), and more piroshki! I also want to try the Russian beers they have on the menu. And more pie!
Yeah, the pie. It has a scrumptious buttery cookie crust, with a hint of almond, and I loved how it crumbled just so. You can order an entire pumpkin, pecan, sweet potato, cinnamon apple, or cranberry apple pie for $12.99. Show up with one of these at a holiday party and poof, you'll have a room full of slaves--what you ask of them is up to you.
Not sure how the dinner entrées are, or what the restaurant vibe is like at night, but I could see it being a relaxing spot for a leisurely meal (things don't move very fast here) and potentially quiet. Let's just say everyone in the restaurant could listen to our conversation at lunch--so it's definitely not the place to break up with someone. But on Saturday nights, things get bumping with some live music (7pm-10pm)--a friend said the accordion player is tops.
I could see Katia's being a good choice for a group of friends who want to catch up (but no interventions). I'd actually love to book a tea party here--get some folks together, eat some blini, have Katia bring over the samovar, linger over some Russian teaâ¦ It's that kind of place. No rush. If you don't have a living room big enough to host your friends, well, this might be the best new stand-in.
Katia's Russian Tea Room
600 5th Ave.
Cross: Balboa St.
San Francisco, CA 94118