Although the Eastern European range of the ethnic spectrum has become a lot more visible lately with the addition of several Bosnian restaurants (and the coming and going of an Albanian one), the high end has been all but invisible since Cafe Alexander flew a bit too close to the sun at the top of the West Port tower, and well before that, Carpathia finally bit it down on far South Grand. But now, in a sprawling dining hall that looks as if it was patterned after those of the czar's palaces, Zhivago's has sent in the culinary cavalry for diners who love the cuisine of Mother Russia and the surrounding countries and cultures.
Zhivago's is housed in a new building a block or so to the north and west of the old Barn at Lucerne complex, and its exterior has the same European rural feel of its neighbor. Inside, Zhivago's is a sensuous epic, taking place amid a museum-gallery room with red-trimmed deep-green walls tastefully decorated with wide-matted painting and engraved china, with chandeliers descending from night-blue ceilings that have been ornamented like a star chamber. The wait staff, predominantly young and Russian-speaking (don't worry, their English is just fine, too), glides from table to table outfitted in satiny traditional garb.
Like the atmosphere, the menu is big and bold, sprawling across many pages and including dozens of hot and cold appetizers, or zakuski, which the prologue to the menu explains are often the dominant feature of a lengthy Russian meal. Beets, sturgeon, paprika and four different grades of caviar -- there are numerous selections here that are far from the norm for St. Louis, but at the same time, there are an equal number of dishes that, once you get beyond their unfamiliar Russian names, are easily accessible to those in your party who aren't looking for the exotic.
Our appetizers were immediate indications of the lusty, full flavors that we would encounter throughout the meal. Basturma ($5.50) turned out to be a Russian analog to carpaccio, with four razor-thin slices of beef tenderloin with a distinctive bite from a dab of paprika paste (much like a reduced Southwestern U.S. red chile), along with a sprinkling of fresh dill, which turned out to be a recurring motif on several courses. Alongside the beef was a portion of mesclun greens and a couple of cherry tomatoes. Ossietrina ($15), given the price, is probably worth considering as a shared appetizer, but it's also a marvelous splurge for smoked-fish lovers, including a loxlike cold smoked sturgeon, a warm smoked version with a flakier texture, and an even more compressed boiled version. Thin slices of fresh cucumber accompany it, and the pure horseradish to flavor it is definitely not for the faint of heart or sinus.
The beet-based vegetable soup called borscht ($4.50) has humble origins, but here it is served in elegant presentation, with a dollop of sour cream floating amid the cabbage, carrots, onion and potato, and a shot of vodka tossed in for an extra buck if you're feeling spunky. Beets are also a dominant feature of the vinaigrette salad ($5.50), described as a "pink" salad, with cubes of steamed beets mixed up with potatoes, carrot, onion and kraut, all of which have been dyed well past pink to more of a bright red.
Unless you are, in fact, pursuing the Russian custom of many courses over a long evening, this many courses might prove a bit overwhelming, especially given the breadth of the entrees. Ours were baranei shashlyk ($15) and kuropatki, ($17) the former a big meal of hearty chunks of lamb and the latter a more dainty but no less filling affair built around two boned quail. The lamb showed up on multiple plates: the meat itself, several large hunks of boneless leg meat, on an iron skillet lined with sauteed onions; and a second china plate that contained roasted potato wedges, fresh onion, a sprig of rosemary, fresh lemon and a small dish of gravy. The meat was full-bodied but cooked to a sufficient degree of tenderness.
The quail had been discreetly sliced in half and stuffed with a ground veal mixture, and it was perfectly moist, with added sweetness available from the selection of prunes and raisins that came with it, and all excess juices mixing in among a bed of saffron rice.
Some 120 wines are available, including everything from Argentine varietals to mature California cabernets. And, of course, there's a wide selection of vodkas, which if taken straight are served ice-cold in cut-crystal shot glasses.
The main dessert tray includes an elaborate but reasonably standard selection of cakes and such, but when in Romanoff, so to speak, one should definitely partake of the blinis ($3.50), thin pancakes stuffed with delicately sweet cheese.
Service was exceptionally attentive, and in the case of our waitress, expert at explaining what really is quite an elaborate and sometimes unfamiliar menu. In an effort to uphold some standards in the dining area, we were asked to check the jackets that we'd hung on the back of our chairs. This is an interesting approach in theory, but I think that degree of formality is beyond the basic expectation in St. Louis, regardless of how ornate the room is. You should also be aware that, despite the large capacity, Friday and Saturday evenings have been booked solid lately, so weekend reservations should be strongly considered.
And be sure to leave yourself a full allotment of time. Zhivago's is best experienced at a leisurely pace, and you'll have plenty of motivation to linger for as long as you can.
15480 Clayton Rd.
Hours: Sun.-Wed., 5-11 p.m.; Thurs.-Sat., 5 p.m.-1 a.m.