Enjoy a taste of Russia – without actually going there

From the Saturday, Feb. 8, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.)

teatimeThe WISCH LIST

By Dave Wischnowsky

There are hotel rooms without doorknobs and with toxic tap water. There are stray dogs roaming the streets – and then vanishing off them to who knows where. There are unfinished buildings, toilets that don’t flush and dangerously steep snow jumps for skiiers and snowboarders.

Oh, and there might be terrorists on the loose, too.

If Sochi doesn’t exactly sound like the ideal wintertime getaway, well, you’re not alone. Many Olympians would likely agree with you.

I’m certain that most Olympic journalists would.

Nevertheless, in spite of its avalanche of venue shortcomings and safety concerns, Sochi is where the 2014 Winter Olympics are being held over the next couple of weeks. And, although you haven’t read much about them lately, Russia actually does have some great things going for it.

Namely, its food – and luckily, you don’t need to actually go to Russia to experience that.
Instead, you can head up to Chicago’s Loop and slip in to Russian Tea Time, located for the past 21 years at 77 W. Adams St., just a curling stone’s throw off Michigan Avenue across from the Art Institute.

This past weekend, as part of our Olympic training my wife and I gorged on Tea Time’s cuisine – hey, it was easier than practicing triple axels – and came away with a deepened appreciation for Mother Russia.

The girl knows her cooking.

A cozy, old-fashioned restaurant with a burgundy interior surrounding white linen tables and vested waitstaff who know their Russian, Tea Time’s menu shouts “Welcome, Comrades!” on its cover and is filled with an array of vegetarian and meat-heavy dishes from the former Soviet Union republics.

Not to be missed, the menu also features a tutorial in how to take “A shot of vodka the proper Russian way.” And wanting to be anything but improper, my wife and I obliged by ordering a flight of vodka for each of us ($13 apiece). She chose the Molotov Cocktail Flight, which included Absolut Peppar, House Horseradish and Pepper-Honey shots. Those Olympic-caliber flames are a bit much for my taste, so I opted for the Jewel of Russia Flight, which featured classic, cranberry and rowanberry vodka.

All were deliciously smooth, and we learned how to shout “Na Zdorovie!” (“To your health!”) and sniff pumpernickel bread before each shot and then eat a pickle afterward, just like real Russians.

With the drinking lesson under our belt, we learned how to eat like real Russians too – in other words, heartily. As a warm-up, I started with a cup of borscht, a sweet-and-sour soup that’s beet-based, but tasted far better than those red roots.

Our appetites fully whetted, we wanted to get a little taste of everything that Tea Time has to offer, and the menu allowed for that desire with a trio of family-style platters. One is for vegetarians ($52), another features seafood ($58), while a third is dedicated to carnivores ($65).

We went with the meat option and selected the “Russian Tea Time Platter for 2,” which featured both appetizer and main courses. The opening platter included meat dumplings, chicken kebab, stuffed mushrooms, carrot salad, beet caviar, Russian hummus, cracked wheat and vinaigrette salads.

Up next, the main course platter was filled with a sampling of warm, rich comfort foods from Tea Time’s regular menu, including beef stroganoff, stuffed cabbage, Moldavian meatballs, chicken pozharski and rice pilaf.

I believe the meatballs, which were sweet, spicy and seemed to melt in your mouth, were the dish I enjoyed most. Enough so that I’d head back to Tea Time again for more – thankfully, no plane ticket to Sochi required.