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Russian Comfort Food 

by Leah Sottile


Tofu. That's a "weird food." Tempeh: also a "weird food." Anything with the words soy, vegan or any foreign name that isn't Italian, Mexican or of Asian extraction - those are filed under "weird foods," as well.


You know what I'm talking about - either because you're one of those people who characterized non-meat and potatoes dishes as "weird foods," or because you're one of those people always trying to get your grandparents, parents or suburban-bred friends to eat outside of their comfortable American boxes. Just because it doesn't have cheese or breading on it doesn't mean it can't be good, guys.


Russian food - there's one sect of the culinary phylum that I assumed would be a sure-fire "weird food" to most white-hairs and other food discriminators. In fact, it's an entire cuisine I was about to file away with octopus, venison and most Southern food when I took my first step into the Neva Russian Tea Room and saw that every patron there was clearly over the age of 60. Maybe I was generalizing, but this clearly couldn't be all that weird.


And Russian food seemed even less weird when I dug into my first potato pyrozhky. Not only was the taste buttery and comforting to the belly on a 40-degree day, but it was also strangely familiar. There was nothing weird about the food - maybe except for the fact that it was all fried or piping hot. In fact, it felt like I'd tasted it before.


Perhaps I had been considering the scads of Russians who make their homes in Spokane. There's a good chance I'd accidentally grabbed a can of borscht off the shelves at Rosauers, or found a renegade vareneki in a plate of ravioli. But here at Neva, there were so many familiar characters: potatoes, butter and mild seasonings. I realized that this was just another country's interpretation of comfort food.


Neva is just a little slice of Spokane's Slavic connection - offering not only Russian cuisine, but also serving many Georgian, Ukrainian and Uzbekistani dishes. But the whole motivation behind Neva is rooted in Russian tradition. The North Division tea room is managed by Alex Riabkov and his family, who originally hail from Russia. The restaurant, which opened in early January, is named after the River Neva, which runs through St. Petersburg.


"We were pretty motivated to open [the restaurant] because there are no Russian restaurants in Spokane," Riabkov says, noting that considering the large local Russian population, they thought Neva would be an appropriate addition to the Spokane restaurant scene.


Everything served at Neva is homemade and freshly prepared. The menu is diverse, relying predominantly on Russian cuisine - though it occasionally departs from the restaurant's theme to offer the occasional cheeseburger and "chicken tender burger." Each item of the lengthy menu is listed in both English and Russian, offering everything from the smallest appetizers to large entrees. Not knowing anything about Russian cuisine, our group ordered a selection of appetizers and lunch entrees - only later to realize that, in our eagerness, we may have ordered a few too many starches for our stomachs to handle.


Our selections varied from the kharchapuri (Georgian cheese puff pastry bread), the varenecki filled with potatoes and onions, blini stuffed with saut & Egrave;ed mushrooms, Chicken a la Kiev and, of course, the pyrozhky -- few too many potatoes for our starving artists' stomachs to handle (but that was our own fault). We overlooked pages of beef stroganoff, baramina (lamb), svinina (pork), traditional eggplant and mushroom sandwiches and soups.


And they don't call it a tea room just to sound cool - the entire time we dined, our waiter continually retrieved our tea cups to return them brimming with steaming tea reminiscent of a solid Oolong or Earl Grey blend. The walls of the tea room are decorated with traditional curtains and golden silhouettes of Russian Orthodox cathedrals domes. Samovars, which are ornately decorated Russian tea vessels, dot the perimeter of the room. Even though European dance music blares and strobe lights flicker in the outside windows, the senior citizen patrons aren't fazed. Because what you get at Neva is something familiar, served in a different fashion. What you eat and drink there couldn't be further from weird.





The Post-Punk Kitchen -- We love Ming Wah - have you guys heard? Oh, you say you haven't? Well, let us explain. Our favorite Chinese joint among all local Chinese joints suffered a little mishap last October, due to one upset feller who tried to score some free grub. The owners, right in the middle of a lunch rush, declined. Next thing they knew a fire had been set to the back of the building. Though the building only suffered minimal damage, the west-of-downtown favorite among punks, Brownies and long-timers decided to close down for a few months.


But they're back and ready for business - and it's better than ever. The dark room off to the left of the entrance is much brighter with the removal of some of the old wood paneling, but the rest is pretty much the same. You can still saddle up with your friends over a combo meal in those vinyl booths, and of course, the service is all the same. How do we know? Well let's just say some Inlander cohorts have already eaten there - twice in one day, in fact. Welcome back, Ming Wah. You were missed.





Ming Wah Chinese Restaurant is located at 1618 W. Third Ave. Hours: Monday-Thursday, 11:30 am-10 pm; Friday-Saturday, 11:30 am-11 pm; Sunday, noon-9 pm. Call 455-9474.





One Opens, Another Closes -- OK, so we love Ming Wah -- but there was another spot in downtown Spokane that we frequented even more than plates of sweet and sour chicken: JoeCo Brazil's. But unlike the Chinese favorite, JoeCo's closed its doors earlier this month. A simple "Closed" sign still hangs on the door. Hey, it was as much of a shock to us as it was to you guys. Sigh. Well, we'll miss you JoeCo's -- your jolly waiters, your hyperactive bartenders, your perfectly shaken dirty martinis and exquisite smoke-free air.





Publication date: 2/17/05

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