From Ruslan with love: sophisticated diningOne has to admire the Russians. Here is a people who produced some of the world’s finest literature, gave the czar the boot, installed communism, defeated Nazi Germany, exported a revolution, overthrew communism and finally, dismantled their empire. What energy motivates this tragic, gifted people?
Oleg Kiriyanov, Seoul bureau chief of Russia’s national daily, the Rossiyskaya Gazeta, may have put his finger on it when I dined with him early this week. Asked the most appropriate time to drink vodka ― as an aperitif, with the meal, or perhaps as a digestif ― this convivial fellow replied, in all seriousness: “Before, during and after meals. And you always drink with a toast.”
Well. If that is not civilized living, what is?
We were eating in Ruslan (named after Pushkin’s fairy tale of the defender of Kiev), the restaurant of the recently opened Russian cultural center near Hongik University. The brand-new dining room here is large and open. Floors are of sprung wood, the lighting is bright, and on the walls are hung portraits of Russian men of letters, plus posters of the Kirov Ballet and Orthodox icons. There is also a fascinating collection of World War II propaganda posters in the magazine rack, but Soviet-era portraits of Lenin, Trotsky and the rest are conspicuously absent.
All told, the place offers a pleasant and rather sophisticated ambience, but is clearly suffering from its position in a side street behind a huge wedding hall: Only one other table was occupied the night we were there.
Perusing the menu, our first priority, of course, was to select a tonsil tickler. There is half a page of vodkas, ranging in price from 5,000 won ($5) per glass of house vodka to 110,000 won for a premium bottle. Oleg selects an Ussuriyskaya (25,000 won per bottle) from the Russian Far East, which is served well-chilled.
There is a tiger on the label, and that may be appropriate: After a couple of bottles of this stuff, you would be ready to wrestle one. At 40 proof, it offers a harsh taste that is, to my uneducated palate, somewhat reminiscent of methylated spirits. Oddly, though, it tastes better the more you drink.
Now, back to the menu. Perusing this is quite a task. It is in Russian, with Korean, but no English translation.
It is an extensive document, offering Ukrainian, Russian and Central Asian classics like borscht, blinis and shashlik, as well as set menus priced at 32,000 to 60,000 won. We order a la carte: Pelmeni (6,000 won), Empress (a salmon dish; 20,000 won) and Seumbinis Geumbami (a pork dish; 15,000 won).
First comes a bread basket of thin-sliced rye bread. “When they travel abroad, Koreans miss kimchi; Russians miss this bread,” says Oleg. Served with unsalted butter, I can see why. Next is soup (free with the mains). This is, Oleg says knowledgeably, solyanka, or salty soup: It is a shredded vegetable broth with sour cream and a touch of oil. Salty, yes, but very good. An unexciting side dish of potato salad, pickled shredded carrots, tomatoes and cucumbers is also served.
Pelmeni, or dumplings, arrive in an earthenware pot with a light cream broth. The pork filling doesn’t really blow my socks off, but the shells are excellent. Of the mains, the salmon is the more successful. A thick, oily fillet, with lightly crisped skin, it is dressed with a rich sauce of sour cream and fish roe. The pork dish, which translates as “pork with cheese and mushrooms,” is exactly that: a chunk of pig, with mushrooms on top, slathered in melted cheese. None of the ingredients really gel, and the cheese is tasteless.
Service ― from our extremely pretty Korean-Uzbek waitress ― was fine, but, as noted, the place was virtually empty. And whatever one’s opinion of the grub, diners are advised to be extremely polite to Comrade Chef ― attired in camouflage trousers, military cap and chef’s jacket, this brawny gent looks like a Speznatz trooper and has a handshake like an industrial vise.
Verdict: If I had to choose between here and that other Russian restaurant, Dongdaemun’s Samarkand, I would go for Samarkand on price terms ― but if I were planning to impress a guest, Ruslan offers a more upscale ambience. Civilized living? Indeed.
English: None spoken or on menu
Address: 2nd Floor, Sereubo Building, 395-138 Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu
Subway: Hapjeong station, Exit 3
Open: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily
Dress: Business or smart casual
by Andrew Salmon