From Russia With Love
Vernisage Offers A View Into The Culinary Arts of Eastern Europe
Walking into the silvery glittering light of Vernisage (1004 Reisterstown Road,  484-7701), Pikesville's 18-month-old Russian restaurant, is like entering another world, one that is perpetually dressed for a wedding reception. Chandeliers drip glass beads like tears, the walls wear trompe l'oeil marbled wallpaper, and twinkling white lights in plastic tubing embrace floor to ceiling columns topped with a tumble of silk ivy. And if the restaurant has been booked for a party, there's a good chance that while you dine, a band will fill the stage, and dancers will gyrate under the disco ball on the makeshift dance floor. If it's an off night, like the night we were there, the only background noise will be Russian pop songs thrumming through the sound system, the turning of magazine pages by the formidable restaurant proprietress supervising the place from the next table, and the murmur of your own conversation.
If you're not Russian, there can be a distinct feeling of otherness at Vernisage. You'll hear more Russian than English, and as in many restaurants, regulars may receive a warmer greeting than first-time guests. But if you're up for a bit of an adventure, you'll be paid handsomely in food, and if you love potatoes, well, this is your restaurant.
In an attempt to be a bit of something for everyone, Vernisage's menu reflects an odd pairing of Eastern European cuisine with fast-food Americana. Soups (all $6) claim heritage from former Soviet republics like Ukraine (borsch), Georgia (kharcho), and Uzbekistan (shurpa), but mozzarella sticks ($8) and buffalo wings ($8) rub elbows with vareniki (potato dumplings, $7) and blintzes served with black or red caviar (market price). If prices look high, it's because most dishes are meant for sharing (though the menu does not point this out). But it should go without saying that you should forgo the fried calamari ($9) in favor of, say, pickled herring ($6) or smoked sturgeon ($15).
We had the benefit of several Russian speakers at our table which certainly made picking through the menu easier. And after being greeted with the offer of hot tea on a very cold night (something we paid handsomely for later, see below), dishes of food began appearing on the table. First was kavkaz ($13), a very fresh green salad with slivers of onion and feta cheese in a tangy vinegar-based dressing, followed immediately by olivie.
"Russian potato salad," the husky-voiced proprietress explained from the next table. The giant mound of cubed potatoes, chicken, peas, and eggs, bound together by mayonnaise, was not dissimilar to a Spanish version I've had at tapas restaurants: blandly creamy, but utterly satisfying.
Potatoes made more appearances throughout the evening, but none were better than home fried potatoes ($10), a platter of beautifully browned potatoes cut into batons and fried with sliced mushrooms. Near the end of the frying, a deft hand sprinkled the spuds with heaps of minced garlic, so that the garlic was just barely cooked and retained its full zing. Amazing in their hearty simplicity, I'm certain there must be potatoes like these in heaven, and if I'm wrong, I'm not going. I'd also be thrilled if heaven included khachapuri ($3), flaky square-shaped pastries that ooze warm tangy cheese, and Siberian pelmeni ($8), tortellini-like dumplings filled with pork, chicken, or veal, and served with sour cream.
At this point in the review, it might be a good time to remind eaters that this is not light (or "lite") food by any means. But at the same time, keep in mind that "substantial" or "filling" doesn't necessarily mean inappropriately "heavy" either. Classic beef Stroganoff ($18) is a rich dish that combines beef, sour cream, mushrooms, and onions, but Vernisage's nuanced and balanced rendition obliterated from memory all of the tasteless, gummy, over-sauced versions I've ever had. It and the garlicky, grilled chicken Tabaka ($16) were served with mashed potatoes and crunchy marinated cabbage in portions large enough for a table of six to share. I was less impressed with our last entrée, podzarka ($15), a sort of layered casserole of sliced pork, potatoes, mushrooms, cheese, and onions, but perhaps at that point, even I had reached my potato/mushroom quota.
Our meal ended with crepes Vernisage, ($10) a plate of six crepes neatly folded into quarters and garnished with a drizzle of chocolate sauce and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. They were what they were and next time I wouldn't bother. Next time I'd also be aware of waitresses bearing carafes of tea which might appear to be gratis but are not. Two carafes of hot tea weighed in on the bill at a hefty $16(!), the same amount as a small carafe of vodka and just under what we paid for the bottle of Beringer Merlot ($18) the proprietress nearly insisted we order from among the sparse offerings she recited. (She also carded anyone at the table "who looked under 35," so be prepared to show I.D.)
Dining at Vernisage is an adventure, one that changes with each visit I imagine. But I wouldn't hesitate to go back. I want to try the vareniki, and besides, there might be a party.