How would Eugene Onegin, the title character of the Russian lit classic, feel about his new namesake restaurant on Sixth Avenue?
He was a bit of a dandy, so he’d certainly be into the over-the-top decor and extravagantly priced menu. A narcissist, too—likely he’d dig all the Alexander Pushkin references, from the author’s gigantic ceiling portrait to the reproduced notebook scribbles and lines from the novel-in-verse fashioned on the place’s walls and wooden tables. And having experienced a tragic downfall (he killed his bestie and rejected the woman who loved him only to be spurned by her later), he might have some words of caution for the overstretching eatery.
Onegin feels like the czarist Russian exhibit at Disneyland’s It’s a Small World: highly stylized (giant samovars, illuminated birch trees, and oversize cocoon chairs) with annoyingly loud music and slightly pushy service. Admittedly, the seating is the comfiest on which I’ve parked my butt recently, but the view out the wall of windows is among the ugliest neon-lit blocks in Greenwich Village. (Hello there, patrons of 99-¢ Fresh Pizza and Grab & Go deli.)
The bill of fare features the best hits of Mother Russia. It simultaneously gives props to hearty peasant classics and the more delicate, French-lilted cuisine fashionable during the 19th century, plus a few shout-outs to Ukrainian and Georgian staples. Like those Soviet five-year plans, it works better in concept than in practice. Although you’ll encounter some gastronomic delights, you’ll also find a dose of suburban wedding eats (bland, overcooked fish with mashed potatoes and grilled vegetables, etc.).
Course of action: Stick to the far more flavorful starters. Salade Olivier ($12) binds finely diced potatoes and assorted boiled veggies in mayonnaise. It’s easy to go gloopy with this app, but Onegin’s rendition is perked up with minced apples. A refreshing chopped beet salad ($12) works, too. Pork belly “salo” ($12, or as part of a $16 sampler) is an upscale way of writing lard. Although often thinly sliced, this version is whipped like butter and then smacked with raw garlic. Want to double-down on meat? Try the charcuterie platter ($24). Something was clearly lost in translation, though, since my friends and I got neither the advertised smoked bacon, pork tenderloin, nor roast sirloin, but I’d wager the cornucopia of smoky sausages with assorted mustards that arrived instead was a more delicious spread.
Warm the gullet with some great veal pelmeni ($15). The little meaty dumplings are way better than the heftier, cabbage-stuffed vareniki ($15), marred by an awful, funky roasted-red-pepper flavor. Or slurp some uha ($12), a traditional fish broth loaded with potatoes that’s simple and satisfying (but nix the accompanying rastegai bun).
Might as well stop there, since only a few of the mains justify their inflated price tags. If you must, go for the beef Stroganoff tangled in mushrooms ($28). Pozharsky cutlets ($18), a/k/a ground-chicken patties dredged in tiny bread cubes and fried, are nicely moist with a crunchy, buttery finish. But pass on the tough chicken Kiev ($22), the lackluster grilled sturgeon ($28), and the inedible, dry, glazed salmon ($24). Desserts, save for the $12 cheesecake, also generally fall short on flavor. But one flavorless Russian treat will certainly help assuage your dining experience: shot upon shot of Beluga vodka.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 21, 2011