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Dining

From Russia with love

Matryoshka is a Cold War throwback, but its food will warm you up

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Herring Under the Blanket at Matryoshka
Photo: Beverly Poppe

Most of us know what matryoshka are, right? No? Well, they are those cute Russian nesting dolls your friends brought back from that cruise to St. Petersburg. Matryoshka is also the name of Las Vegas’ newest Russian restaurant, an enormous place just south of the Las Vegas Outlet Center on Las Vegas Boulevard. I’d wager that there isn’t a splashier Russian place between here and Brooklyn.

This gaudy nightclub-cum-restaurant, which has loads of red and black vinyl booths, colored round lights and a huge dance floor, doubles as a disco on weekends, complete with a Russian singer and a sound system that plays louder than the roar of a jet on the McCarran runway. For those old enough to remember, it feels like a Brezhnev-era club in here. I half expected to hear “YMCA” before dessert.

One Friday evening, a friend and I stopped in for dinner, not knowing that there was a wedding party in one of the restaurant’s private rooms. The music was ear-splitting, and the singer seemed quite relieved when I requested silence. She complied, just as our main courses arrived.Bozhe moi.

Of course, there is always lunch, when the restaurant is eerily quiet for such a cavernous space. Either way, you’ll be eating food cooked by the restaurant’s Lithuanian-born chef, Rima Leonaviciute. The chef is adept not only at her native dishes, but also at a number of other cuisines from former Soviet republics, such as ones from Georgia.

The Details

Restaurant Guide
Matryoshka
Three and a half stars
7700 Las Vegas Blvd. S. 489-2700.
Sunday-Wednesday, 11 a.m.-2 a.m.; Thursday-Saturday, until 4 a.m.
Suggested dishes: borscht, $8; pelmeni, 8; stuffed chicken leg, $23; fishcakes, $12.

Spicy Georgian lamb and rice soup, for instance, called kharcho, was on the original menu when the restaurant opened two months back, but, in the chef’s words, “No one was ordering it.” She retains large steamed dumplings called khinkali, and khachapuri, a sort of hot cheese bread, for those who fancy food from the Caucasus. Otherwise, there are so many traditional Russian dishes, you’ll lose track.

One that is a must is borscht, the famous Russian beet soup, here served with hunks of Russian rye bread. The chef also makes a light, tasty fish soup, and all the soups are served in Battleship Potemkin-sized soup tureens.

Another must is pelmeni, known in certain quarters as Russian ravioli. The same huge soup bowl arrives, this time stocked with pint-sized steamed dumplings, maybe 14 or so, each one stuffed with a zesty meat filling, The dumplings sit in a shallow pool of a flavorful chicken broth. On the side, there is a little monkey dish of sour cream, to make a heavy dish even heavier. Let’s face it: This stuff wasn’t invented for July in Vegas.

There is lighter fare, though. Those Russian women might be eating eggplant caviar on toast, a tasty dip or, perhaps, tomatoes stuffed with tuna salad. One of the best cold dishes is the assorted smoked fish, a plate stocked with whitefish and mackerel. Hot appetizers can be delicious as well. Fried chicken wings have a special house marinade. Perogi, hot little potato- or cheese-stuffed pies, are wonderful with cold beer.

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Chef Rima is a whiz with meat and fish. Her fishcakes are made with tilapia and whipping cream, but they are so light, you’d swear they would float away at altitude. Something called “magic salmon” is also light, and healthy as well. It’s an oven-baked fish in broth with julienned vegetables, the perfect antidote to some of the heavier appetizers.

My choice among the meat dishes is stuffed chicken leg, a boneless leg stuffed with what tastes like a French galantine, a nicely spiced forcemeat laced with finely chopped mushrooms. Golubtci is stuffed cabbage, just like my grandmother used to make, except that this version uses ground pork instead of beef, mixed with rice.

Naturally there is chicken Kiev, too, the one dish you could depend on in the Brezhnev era in any hotel restaurant in the former Soviet Union. This one is a beauty, too—a long, crisp, bread-crumb-battered cylinder of chicken meat, crowned with paper and drooling butter when cut open. The chef serves hers with some broccoli and mashed potatoes, a damn sight more than you would have gotten at a hotel in Leningrad or Moscow back in the day.

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