Russian restaurants in Toronto
Russian restaurants in Toronto re-create the experience of an authentic Russian banquet. As an old-country Russian, I can tell you one thing: you don't go to a Russian restaurant for a meal. You go there for an experience. There's nothing casual about Russian dining, whether you're in someone's home or at a small joint in a suburban strip mall. Growing up, I remember the rare delicacies (like smoked sprats, liver pate and canned caviar) being hunted down for months and hidden away until that special day, when suddenly our dining table looked like it could host the Tsar himself. And the leftovers! Oy, the leftovers.
Toronto's Russian community is massive, and so is the number of Russian restaurants. In this post, I'll cover five distinct types - all reliably authentic but different in style and atmosphere. As a crucial side note, the best way to experience a Russian restaurant is
with a large group of people. Hire a limo - split between 8-10 people is cheaper than a cab - and pop some bubbly on the way. By the time you reach the destination, you'll be primed for some good times, Russian-style. Za zdorovye!
Here are five Russian restaurants to check out in Toronto:
Imperator (The Emperor) (2901 Steeles Ave W)
Imperator lives up to its name--a lavish, over the top, red-and-gold testament to the kitschy opulence of banquet culture. On a Saturday night, it'll easily pack 150 guests, who as we say back home, will by the end of the night either "finish face down in the dessert, or if they're weak, in the appetizer." Try the Russian salad "Olivier"--mayonnaise-laden diced potatoes, carrots, pickles, chopped egg and peas. It's a staple at every single Russian celebration and if you don't try it, you might as well go home.
Another must-have is sliced cold-cut cow tongue--pretend you don't know what it is and you'll love it with a touch of beet horseradish. My personal favourite is the herring in shuba--which literally means 'fur coat'--and sees delicately pickled fillets topped with layers of shredded beets, chopped egg, sour cream and onions. There will also be five or six mains--hot blinis stuffed with meat, as well as chicken tabaka, which is a Russian version of rotisserie, fried forest mushrooms with potato mash, and the ubiquitous beef cutlets.
Amulet Restaurant & Banquet Hall (4700 Dufferin Ave)
Amulet's style and presentation is as lavish and dramatic as that of Imperator's but its menu spans across several former Soviet republics. Here, in addition to the customary Russian fare, you'll enjoy a taste of Ukraine (fried potato pancakes) and Moldova (mamalyga, Balkan-style corn meal which is paired with melted butter and feta cheese, and is a real tradition in my parents' home).
You'll be introduced to the succulent shishliks of the Caucasus and toast with original Georgian wines. And you'll dance the night away to an epic set of ethnic beats from the former Soviet Union. Amulet can accommodate up to 170 guests.
Retro Room (1600 Steeles Ave West)
Retro Room offers similar fare to the above choices, within roughly the same price range, though here you have the option of choosing individual dishes. Retro's schtick is the old-school Soviet theme--the place is divided into two rooms, main and VIP, both made to look like a traditional Soviet flat circa 1983. Everything here--from the wallpaper to the framed clippings of Pravda newspaper, to the background music--takes you on a tour behind the Iron Curtain.
I suggest starting off with appetizers of pickled forest mushrooms, and assorted cold cuts (yes, there will be tongue). Follow up with borscht--Retro's borscht is the real deal, made with beef bone--and if you're feeling adventurous, try Okroshka, a traditional cold summer soup with fresh vegetables, chopped egg and cold cuts. After that, it's a tough call between the traditional Chicken Kiev and the Veal Liver. The standard selection of tiramisu, cheesecake and crème brulee are available for dessert, which you can enjoy with a cup of Russian tea and soulful tunes by a distinguished pianist in the Main Room.
Kiev Restaurant (1520 Steeles Ave West)
I must admit I have a soft spot for Kiev. And not just because I once enjoyed a very special birthday at that place--nothing beats rolling into a strip mall in a stretched limo, the lot of us dressed like extras from Moulin Rouge. Kiev is the Working Man's banquet hall, the humble antidote to the often-ridiculous panache of its competitors. In certain (read: pretentious) circles, it would be categorized as a mere stolovaya--something even less than a cafeteria.
But ask any of its patrons, and Kiev, much like the city it's named after, is a happening place. Here, you'll enjoy the same fantastic 20-course spread as in any other banquet hall, for a better price. You'll get good service, as Kiev is smaller and less hectic. And best of all, you'll end the night celebrating with everyone else who happened to be there, and perhaps even sit in the lap of some jolly tattooed "beeznisman," belching out Russian karaoke.
Rasputin Vodka Bar (780 Queen St East)
You didn't expect me to pass on this place, did you? Now, I know Rasputin is not really the kind of Russian restaurant one comes to expect from the Thornhill bunch. But this east-side baby of Rumen Dimitrov's, the most devout Bulgarian Russophile in town, has in my opinion, become more Russian over the years, in subtle but equally authentic ways.
There was a time when I admit, I mocked its a la Romanoff theme and even questioned the recipe of their salad Olivier (I went so far as to produce my own batch, just to show them up, which Rumen graciously served at the restaurant the following night). Today, Rasputin has grown from a pseudo-chic novelty to a genuine St Petersburg-style saloon, where the spirits of old bohemian Russia are summoned inside its dim walls, shadows of young Dostoyevsky and Blok hovering by the bar. A different kind of Russia lives here - dark and introspective. Until of course, everyone's had a little vodka.
In addition to these spots, other reputable Russian restaurants to consider are Red Square, Aragvi, Georgia, and Pravda Vodka Bar. They're quite similar to the few I've covered above, with the exception of Pravda: that place is as authentic as Ivan Drago, but has more kinds of vodka than you can count in a lifetime.
Writing by Inna Gertsberg