I’ve never known much about Russian culture. In college, our studies focused almost exclusively on Europe, so most of what I know about the former superpower was gleaned from the film The Hunt for Red October (and that Russian guy had a Scottish accent). So I’m not sure what to expect as I approach Red Square, the Russian-themed restaurant and bar at Mandalay Bay.
At first glance, it’s a little forbidding. Outside stands a giant headless statue of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, and the entrance yields to a dark, cavernous room with severe red lighting. But given a minute for my eyes to adjust, I see not a shadowy gulag, but an ornate, stylish dining room with several candlelit tables and booths. Russian lettering and artwork adorn the cracked stone walls, and a center chandelier has each light topped with a Kremlin-style cupola. The elegance is fitting, considering the delicacy I’ve come to sample.
Every day, from 4 to 6 p.m., Red Square offers not only a happy hour, but a Cavi-Hour. Two shots of Imperia Vodka get you an ounce of Petrossian caviar. And since the shots only cost $30, and caviar typically costs between $65 and $275, it’s quite a deal—especially for those of us who rarely have the opportunity to sample the finer things in life.
I sidle up to the bar, which has an icy strip running its entire length, and I order a cocktail called Lenin’s Kryptonite (which I’m guessing is what weakened the Russian leader enough for his head to be removed). It’s served to me in a frosted martini glass and is deceptively sweet. But that’s the magic of vodka—it tends to disappear completely into any concoction, only to return the next morning in the form of a hangover. To prove my point, my friend Bree arrives and orders The Chernobyl.
“That’s our strongest drink,” the bartender cautions.
It would have to be, wouldn’t it? Any cocktail named after radioactive devastation is bound to hurt the next day. The cranberry-flavored beverage even comes with a candy garnish that I’m told is an homage to Blinky the three-eyed fish from The Simpsons. Toying with it, Bree accidentally knocks off one of its chocolate eyes.
“Noooo!” I cry. “He was unique. Now he’s just like any other candy-garnish fish.”
Without further ado, it’s time for the main event.
“Have you ever had caviar before?” the bartender asks me.
“Once—a long time ago—but I was too young to appreciate it.”
“I’ve never been able to get into it,” he says. “I’ve tried, but I don’t really like fish.”
“Yeah, but they’re not fish yet,” I point out, jokingly. “You wouldn’t shun eggs just because you don’t like chicken.”
The bartender returns with a plate of caviar, several blinis (which resemble tiny pancakes) and the traditional assortment of accoutrements—egg white, egg yoke, parsley, etc. He then instructs us to use one spoon for the extra ingredients and another for the caviar. Apparently, if we use the wrong one, the membrane will oxidize. Between the very technical lecture and the isopropyl smell of our vodka shots, I suddenly feel like I’m back in chemistry class.
Continuing, he tells us to spread the caviar on the blinis and use our tongues to press the fish eggs against the roofs of our mouths. You know you’re eating something fancy when there’s an in-depth procedure just to put it in your mouth. Like good little pupils, we follow his lessons to a T, and it’s absolutely delicious, and unfortunately, over all too soon. Now I have to worry about developing a taste for something I’ll seldom be able to afford.
With the caviar gone, there’s still one more mystery left to solve: What happened to Lenin’s head?
We’re led to the opposite end of the bar and are promptly dressed in Russian garb—a fur coat for my friend and a heavy police coat for myself. Then we enter the Vodka Vault. The air conditioning roars over our heads, keeping 230 varieties of vodka at a frosty 3 degrees Fahrenheit. At the center of the room is Lenin’s decapitated head, encased in ice (well, glass, actually), presumably until they can find a cure. For $200 to $1000, depending on the vodka, patrons can enjoy their drinks in the vault.
So my Russian education is finally complete. I mean, you can’t get much more Russian than doing shots of vodka off of Vladimir Lenin’s head.