Hellin is a friend, former co-worker and grown-up punk rocker who was born in Russia. Having moved on to a busy career as a freelance photographer and stylist
, she is longer a regular presence in the office. So she masterminded a reunion with her former colleagues at a Russian restaurant called Traktir. Perched on the corner of Crescent Heights and Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood, Traktir offers a pleasant patio where you can sip tea sweetened with homemade compote while watching a stream of bright car lights and waxed muscle boys make their way to the nearby bars. Inside, the stuffed boar's head, porcelain pitchers and wooden instruments make you feel as if you're eating in a cozy cottage in the Russian woods.
Traktir isn't as opulent as Maxim
, the amber bubble of a banquet hall that is hidden from many non-Russians on Fairfax Avenue. Traktir's functional kitchen is located just behind the rows of liquor and stained glass tableaux depicting the greatness of the Russian Orthodox Church.
What good Russian restaurant wouldn't have a samovar on the shelf?
Truth be told, the samovar looked as if a layer of dust had settled on it. That's because most of the guests dipped into the vodka infused with horseradish and jalapeno peppers. On the other side, out of view, were big jars of raspberries, pineapples and cranberries steeping in the alcohol.
We were lucky to have Hellin guide us in the ritual of drinking horseradish vodka.
The vodka must be cool. You take a sip, followed by a bite of the pickle. Unlike the pickles offered at most delis, these pickles didn't impart much of a dill flavor. (The fresh dill was saved to garnish the food.) Instead, the firm chunks of cucumbers had a slightly sweet, very vinegary taste. It cleansed the palate after the horseradish vodka, which didn't burn the throat as much as the jalapeno vodka. Both the horseradish and jalapeno liqueur would be key ingredients in a killer Bloody Mary. As for the other fruit-flavored vodka, the cranberry was my least favorite; it tasted like the last dregs of a cranberry juice-vodka cocktail. The raspberry and pineapple vodka would be nice to drink at the end of a meal in lieu of dessert.
The trio of appetizers looked pretty bland and unappetizing at first. There was the marinated herring with pickled onions, boiled potatoes and chopped chicken salad. As dill is one of my favorite herbs (an omelet of eggs with tomatoes, onions and dill is such a simple and enjoyable meal) I tried to catch as many of the thin green strands in each scoop. The herring was barely cooked. I coined it ceviche from the Caucasus Mountains. It turned out to be another nice chaser for the vodka. While the potatoes were bland fillers to offset the strong flavors of the other dishes, the chopped chicken salad was a comforting mix of mashed eggs, cubed chicken and mayonnaise.
We couldn't get enough of the pickled cucumbers, so we ordered the pickled combination that included shredded cabbage and tomato quarters submerged in vinegar for days. They provided crunchy relief to the alcohol and heavy, creamy food.
The beet salad was also an unsightly mess. Traktir should really consider hiring Hellin to style its food before it leaves the kitchen. But all you had to do was close your eyes and appreciate the sweetness of the beets, potatoes and onions.
I'm not sure how many gallons of cream the restaurant goes through each week. The creamy white sauce hid the trio of dumplings. We couldn't tell which was the chicken, the cheese or the meat filling. We just had to spoon a bunch onto our plates and dig in.
The chicken blintz was a very long crepe stuffed with ground chicken and drenched in a porcini mushroom sauce. It was the epitome of comfort food; you had cream, cheese, soft veggies and a subtle mix of ground meat. It was also my favorite dish of the evening. The blintz was a bit thicker than a conventional crepe, which meant that, if it was left uneaten for a while, it'd start to harden.
I was so overwhelmed by the chicken blintz, that my taste buds basically ignored the stuffed cabbage. I was intrigued by the cup of sour cream that accompanied it, but not enough to go back for seconds.
Russia, or at least the former Soviet Union, spanned such a vast area that you marvel at its diversity. Our waiter resembled a Mongolian/Chinese mix who spoke perfect Russian. Never mind that he was a little slow, constantly leaving before we finished telling him all the dishes we wanted because he hadn't brought a pen and pad and couldn't remember everything. The country's diversity was represented in our last entree, the chicken shish kebabs, which wouldn't have seemed likely to come from the same kitchen that boiled the bland potatoes. The meat was grilled perfectly. Still, I thought the hodgepodge of spices that marinated the chicken leaned a little more toward the salty side than my preference would allow. But now I understand why a boiled potato has a purpose on the table.