Soon after the beef stroganoff and chicken cutlets come to our table, the party in back of Red Tavern and the party in the front of Red Tavern begin arguing with each other across the room. It seems to be the kind of argument you have with your drinking buddies instead of an escalating brawl, but after a few volleys, all four men leap out of their chairs to take the discussion outside. While we finish our entrees and polish off a round of sour-cherry dumplings for dessert, our waiter, all dark eyebrows and grave solicitousness, brings out their entrees and quietly sets them on the men's tables. The men are still outside, smoking as intently as they are debating, when we leave a half-hour later.
Two-month-old Red Tavern does seem to be a little bit of a tavern, doling out foot-high glasses of Czech beer and bottles of Georgian red wine. But it also hosts lavish family dinners and middle-aged couples mooning at each other over bowls of borscht. The Outer Richmond may have a thriving strip of Russian markets, but Red Tavern is the neighborhood's first Russian restaurant to open in years (it replaced another Russian restaurant, Sadko, which lasted in the same spot about three years). After two solid dinners that left me enthusiastic about the place and a third, punishingly mediocre one, I'd have to conclude that the food zigzags from the good to the odd, but the meal is rarely boring.
Red Tavern serves Russian and Continental cuisine, with nods to upscaled American comfort food. For every bowl of potato vareniki on the menu, there's a caprese salad and lobster mac 'n' cheese. There is a section for zakuski (drinking snacks) like fried calamari and a Cuban sandwich, as well as blini for a party of six, and grilled skewers of sturgeon or chicken. It is a restaurant where dining out is assumed to be an event, not casual entertainment.
Vestiges of the 1970s live on in the nautical carvings at the entrance and bar and the faux-brick, but they've been tamed by a decent remodel: cherry Pergo floors, chocolate-colored ceilings, and tables covered in brown and white tablecloths that drape down to the floor. There's an awful lot of red, as you'd expect of a place called the Red Tavern, and also paintings of clowns, which you might not.
The borscht ($5.95), mooned over by the lovers? It's quite good — a sort of Sunday night version, restrained and deeply flavored, less dominated by beets and tomatoes than swatches of braised beef and silky cabbage. It comes with a ramekin of sour cream, which spirals into the soup as you pour it. A Bulgarian salad ($6.50) is at its late-summer peak, with tomatoes as sweet as they are red, jade-colored Armenian cucumbers, red peppers, and onions, all covered in flecks of grated feta, which give the salad the salt-shock it needs. If the potato vareniki ($9.95) are much duller than the dumplings at the venerable Katia's Russian Tea Room, Siberian pelmeni ($8.95) are just as good; the tortellini-like dumplings, the size of quarters, are stuffed with ground veal and pork and shiny with melted butter. The dough is as thin as the skins on a dim sum master's jiaozi.
Red Tavern serves good-quality cured fish, though it's not cured in-house: a platter of assorted smoked fish ($13.95) tiled over in stiff curls of halibut smoked to the color of varnished oak, translucent folds of orange salmon marked with chevrons of white fat, and creamy-fleshed sturgeon. Baltic pickled herring ($5.95), silver-skinned fillets with flesh that approaches the plush, is surrounded by pickled red onions, all of which get piled on thin slices of sweet, dark rye bread smothered in butter.
While the more amorphously European dishes are there to give Russian-speaking diners more variety, they're not the most distinctive ones. A "French salad" ($6.50) of chopped romaine, dried cranberries, and cucumbers in a sweet vinaigrette is the kind of gussied-up salad you find at a hotel restaurant in San Bernardino. The rabbit stew ($18.50) — one of the priciest dishes on the menu, but an entire half a rabbit — is the sort of dish French bistros in the 1980s impressed us with; now, it's apparent the meat is still stiff even after being reheated in a glossy reduction the color of cherry Coke.
The entrees all come with a choice of sides: pan-roasted zucchini and peppers, under-seasoned kasha (buckwheat groats), spiced fried cauliflower that deserves a place of honor on the list of drinking snacks, and "Red Tavern potatoes," also known as a potato gratin, which remind you why cream is one of the world's great cooking mediums. Stuffed cabbage rolls ($13.95) as fat around as 7-Up cans are plumped out with rice and flecks of finely ground meat, both underseasoned. Chicken cutlets, "home style" ($11.75), turn out to be miniature meat loaves browned in the pan, ovals of ground chicken larded with enough fat to keep them moist. The varying quality of the entrees comes as no surprise — there are simply too many dishes for the size of the place.
If the restaurant has a showpiece, it's the beef stroganoff ($17.50), a classic of bourgeois Russian cooking now recognized from Peoria to Kowloon. Red Tavern's version, tender strips of beef with mushrooms and onions coated in a cumin-scented sauce thickened with sour cream, comes to the table in a bowl over which the cooks have stretched a square of pastry. In the oven, the steam from the stew inflates the pastry into a high, flaky dome that you have to crack open with your fork to start in, demolishing the shell as the beef disappears.
The same domed bowls sit, cooling, on the abandoned tables of the smoking debaters, and it takes all my resolve not to chastise them for ruining Red Tavern's most dramatic dish.