How do we define Perfection?
I have been waiting to write this post since before this blog was even conceived. I have been set on going to this restaurant for about half a year.
Being a Marylander, summer means that it is time to migrate. We pack up our autos, meander through the highway system, cross the Bay Bridge, and then continue Eastward until we hit the Atlantic. We then spend a few days at whatever Ocean Resort we can get our hands on. Ocean City, MD is a little too busy, so I stick with Rehoboth, DE. Since it’s Delaware and not Maryland there is no Old Bay at the French fry stand, but I can take it if it means a more relaxed atmosphere.
In some ways Rehoboth is very much like Ocean City though. Can any desirable vacation destination avoid the air of becoming a tourist trap? There is plenty of overpriced dollar store junk; knives with your name cut into them, sandals that will hopefully last the week, and cute little plastic sandcastle sets. In short, its kitschy. Yet again, I think America is all about kitsch. As much as I try to fight it, this is simply the way it is. America is all about the massive gorilla statue outside of a car dealership.
America is all about the facade. And that is fine. But it only made the experience I had more profound.
I found perfection in Rehoboth. It was tucked into a nice little block of shops. It has walls painted a deep malachite. It had a massive bar with hundreds of different vodkas. It had Soviet propaganda signs advertising happy hour. It had music with Russian lyrics. And, most importantly, it had authentic Russian food. Yes, amidst the hermit crab and beachy clothes shops there is a blink and you’ll miss it piece of Russia in Rehoboth. The shop opens up at 6 PM. Most people walk by it as the day passes. The adventurous at least go up to the window and look at the menu. Americans have certain stereotypes of Russian food, we’ll get into those later.
All that matters for the discussion is that the shop opens at 6PM and that I made a Reservation on 7/20 for 7PM.
Its 6:20PM. I wake up my mate and we get dressed. Its 6:40PM. I am driving down Coastal Highway and taking Rehoboth Beach Access Route A. Its 6:50PM. I find a parking spot directly across from the restaurant, feed the meter. Its 7. I’m seated in a bright red booth hugging an oval table. I am in Red Square.
Oh sorry I haven’t mentioned the name yet have I? Red Square! (Красная площадь [Krasnaya Ploshad])
I invite you to explore their website to see what its all about or plan your own trip: http://www.redsquarecaviar.net/
The tables are immaculate. The walls are a gorgeous malachite and are covered with paintings. The bar is stocked.
I only saw two other couples in the restaurant that night. I did not see many people in the night before or after. Most Americans are weird about Russian food (a point I will continue to kick down the road-keep reading) and most Americans on vacation would rather drink overpriced beer and have second rate pizza with their dull children than have an unforgettable meal and try something new. This place is all about quality, and it exists in regal defiance of all your expectations about vacationing on the eastern shore.
Oh god the menu. How do I pick? So many choices! I do not even know if I like caviar. Which meal should I get? How many courses? Which vodka do I pick from the hundreds at the bar? After the initial shock wore off (the same sort of shock I suspect an Otaku gets when visiting Otakon for the first time) I decided to go for it. I have been waiting for this and have worked hard, this would be my graduation present to myself. When in Red Square do as the Russians do…and it is my humble opinion that Russians have an unparalleled taste for luxury. This capacity is part of what got the Romanov family killed I suspect…
So I order the Prince Gourmet with a shot of Stolichnaya Elit. The vodka arrived first. My girlfriend is a fan of the Hellboy comics so she naturally ordered the cocktail named after the Mad Monk himself, Rasputin. I was astonished by how smooth her drink was. I suspect that Rasputin must have been just as smooth with Tsaritsa Alix…
I did not drink the vodka the moment it was served to me…I wanted it to be a chaser for the caviar. I suspect this may be a faux pas although I’ll need to do more research…
And then the caviar was brought out.
The Prince Gourmet consists of 1/4oz each of Ocetra and Sevruga caviar served with clarified butter, blini, toast points, and crème fraîche. True Caspian Sturgeon caviar comes in three varieties priced according to rarity, size, and age of the species of sturgeon they are harvested from (the waiter explained this to me, incidentally he taught me how to actually eat the caviar too). These varieties, in order from most to least expensive, are as follows:
- Beluga: the rarest caviar, I cannot comment on the flavour or appearance as I did not have it.
- Ocetra: middle of the road with medium size and a brown colour. Has a rich but somewhat neutral flavour.
- Sevruga: the least expensive of Caspian caviar with small eggs and a dark colour. Still rich but has a saltier taste that lends a great umami character to it. This was actually my favourite although it seems to be more polarizing for other people. The flavour reminded me of anchovies although it is far more subtle. It is evocative of the briny smell and taste that winds coming inland from the sea carry.
The caviar came out on half shells astride chipped ice. It was served with a mother of pearl spoon as metal would contaminate the flavour. I tried a bit of straight caviar and then used it as a topping. Slather a toast point with the crème fraîche and add on some caviar, or maybe pour some clarified butter on a blini before adding caviar and wrapping it up. Perfection! I suspected that I was not necessarily eating it right but that is fine; better to make mistakes now right? No one was judging me.
I made it through the Prince Gourmet. My better half does not like the idea of eating roe which just meant more for me. As I mentioned before, I preferred the more pronounced edge that the Sevruga carried. It has a wonderful salty taste with plenty of buttery richness and depth. Caviar is an exceedingly simple food, but with each spoonful you notice something deeper, you go a little further down the rabbit hole.
After the caviar I took my shot of Stolichnaya Elit as planned, but not after I toasted with a cheer of Поехали! (Poyekhali!) That is what Yuri Gagarin alleged said before being launched into space. It translates to “Let’s go!” I’m not sure how much of a toast it is but I’m fond of it. The vodka goes does like water. I drank the whole shot at once although I left a little bit and had to take a second sip. I would have had more but I was the designated driver so I had to hold off. Next time though…
While waiting for our entrees we were treated to some lovely Russian Black Bread. It had a smell smell and taste of rye but was so excellent that my rye bread-hating girlfriend happily partook.
We were also greeted by the owner, Victoria. I mentioned that Russians have a great sense of luxury, they also have a magnificent eye for hospitality. She shared a bit of her story with us and was happy to ask us about our vacation was going. She made us feel very welcome, and very comfortable as well in the face of a new experience. She visited our table several times actually to make sure that everything was perfect. I mustered the courage to try some of my Russian language skills and we struck up a conversation. I even managed to learn a few Russian phrases from her.
The entrees arrived next. My better half is a fiend when it comes to dumplings so she ordered the Pelmeni (пельме́ни). They were absolutely divine and steamed to perfection; served with clarified butter, crème fraîche, and some apple cider vinegar. Victoria explained that this last addition was her husband’s idea. It seems to be an American-Russian taste. Regardless, it is a delicious idea.
I ordered a dish that I had been fantasizing about ever since I have read about its immensely complicated preparation in Anya Von Bremzen’s Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking.
Kulebiaka (кулебя́ка) is as delicious as it is beautiful. It consists of fish (in this case salmon) put onto a bed of rice with capers and mushrooms before being wrapped in pastry dough. It was served with a refreshing dill sauce. Victoria explained that it is sometimes used as a wedding dish and then instructed me on how to proceed with eating it; one must cut into it, break it up, and mix up the various parts of it. I must admit, it was painful to destroy something that was so beautiful…
But it was worth it…It was absolutely worth it. The kulebiaka was at once rich and refreshing, heavy and light, filling and yet somehow airy. The salmon was cooked to perfection and the rice was absolutely delicious. The entire thing was perfectly cooked, and the shell was a rich golden brown as you can see. Every component melded to create a perfect harmony. I keep using the word perfect here…and I mean it!
At this point we were stuffed but we needed dessert. We got a house dish called the Strawberry Romanov. It was served in an over sized martini glass and consisted of layers of boozy strawberries with whipped cream. The vodka did not affect me very much, but this thing did and it was a fine way to end the meal.
This was easily the best meal of my life.
After that we paid our bill and said our goodbyes to everyone. We stepped outside back out into the warm ocean locale. The sun hadn’t set yet. We had left the Tsarist court; we were now tourists again. There was nothing special about us. No one talked to us. Most people did what they normally do and just walked by. A few looked into the restaurant, perhaps not realizing what treasures lie inside. But as we walked I realized that we weren’t like the rest. We did not have pizza and burgers and bar food. We did not have a side of fries and an American Adjunct Lager. We just had an unforgettable meal of unparalleled luxury and quality. We had gone to Russia and back, all in the span of just a few hours. We had touched something new, something exotic and unusual and surely possessed by the Russian soul. I shuffled along on the pavement and then on the boardwalk but I didn’t feel like anyone else. I felt like I had left heaven to walk among mortals again. Wow I am starting to sound crazy here I bet? I guess caviar does that to you. Or maybe it was the Strawberry Romanov…Regardless, I couldn’t help but relish what was surely the most unique and fanciful experience Rehoboth, nay, the whole state of Delaware, has to offer.
The website for Red Square makes a bold claim that it will “bring you back to old Tsarist Russia.” It unconditionally makes good on this. The decadence, atmosphere, and quality of food and service are almost surreal and anachronistic. And yet Red Square is the realest place in all of Rehoboth. Here was something authentic. Here is a place that means something. Red Square as a restaurant is out of place in both Rehoboth Beach and in modern America as a whole. Its bold. Its pure. Both are rare in our kitschy and fast-paced culture. I read about Russia and learn about it every day, but to actually touch and taste Russian culture changes just puts everything in perspective. A picture is worth a thousand words but a meal is worth many, many more.
One more note, after our entrees arrived Victoria came to tell us how to approach them. She was happy that we ordered kulebiaka and pelmeni; most Americans simply opt for the more recognizable Chicken Kiev and Stroganoff. Most Americans seem to have an unflattering view of Russian cuisine. This is because they don’t read into it and aren’t looking for a challenge. Maybe they have trouble seeing past the smoked fish and borscht. Maybe they’re simply too comfortable with what they expect.
So I urge you all to go out and try new things. Go out and experience new corners of the world. I would say that Red Square is a perfect place to start your journey.