Rolling out the warming banquet at L'Ermitage
To deal with the lingering intense cold of this winter, let’s turn to other cultures that suffer month after month of climatic hardship. In a Siberian frame of mind, we should think doughy grub and shot after shot of vodka. Fortunately, the Russian L’Ermitage is only a brief trudge from a metro, which makes it all the less likely you’ll wander into a snowbank and freeze off your ushki.
Some charms are to be found in the square-roomed resto, which was still adorned with leftover Christmas lights when I dropped in. Boppy Russian pop tunes belied the dour Siberian stereotype. A couple of Russian hotties walked in, wearing tight jeans and little puffy coats. The atmosphere warmed up even more.
How can you not love a place that serves vodka in 25 cl increments? We started with Stolichnaya and Moskovskaya, each smooth, the latter slightly more peppery. Next came the premium Belvedere. Then I ordered the Absolut Kurant, having forgotten why I don’t like flavoured vodka. This horrid cough-syrupy stuff reminded me. The only recourse was to take solace in more Stoli. Soon the cold outside was incidental, my napkin was falling off my lap, and we hadn’t even had the starters. I was snockered. But after a few more shots, I broke to the other side and everything was clear again.
The menu’s rich with choices ranging from bison shish kebab to cabbage rolls, from chicken fricassee to Moldavian ratatouille. We went for a single gastronomic prix fixe and supplemented it with soup and an extra main (couples, even trios, often share the $55 table d’hôte).
First were smoked fish slices – tuna, eel, sturgeon (slightly past its prime) and salmon beautifully matched with pink peppercorns and fronds of dill. Bright salmon caviar was heaped upon a hard-boiled egg half – an exercise in texture.
My borscht was a good balance between cabbage, vinegar, potato and beet. "People ask for that Russian soup," the grey-eyed proprietress said, "but borscht is Ukrainian, Polish – not Russian."
My Zhivago’s solianka soup was chockfull of chicken, ham, beef, capers, olives, lemon. Rich and crazy, it was a meal in itself.
We then ravaged an assortment of dumplings. Vareniki, topped with fried onions and mushrooms. Meaty round pelmeni (reminding me of wontons), pastry-like piroshki, and our faves, the mushroom-stuffed ushki, named for the ears they look like. All were silky-doughed and butter-smothered, to be eaten with lots of sour cream.
Bellies already stretched, lemon sorbet in vodka eased the transition to the main course. Chicken Kiev was a tender crisp roll of chicken, with melted butter inside. My zrazi was veal wrapped around hard-boiled egg, red pepper and mushroom, with a very flavourful mustard-lemon sauce.
Throughout we drank more vodka, made all the sweeter by the food. My Ukrainian-descent companion told me of Muscovites taking a bit of sausage and a vodka shot as a mid-morning pick-me-up. I could see the Mongol hordes in his almond-shaped eyes.
Our dessert crêpes were stuffed with a cheesy concoction, topped with strawberry syrup. "The French say crêpes are theirs, the Russians know they’re theirs," we were told.
At my bidding, my little Bolshevik leaned over and whispered phrases learned years before in a Russian course. Soft phrases resonate in my ear. Nice. What does it mean? "Hello" and "thank you," he smiled.
5001 Queen Mary; 735-3886
Dinner for two, no tax, no tip, no vodka shots: $40-$60