BEAR NECESSITIES 

West County's new Russian restaurant delivers hearty, earthy meals from a culture with an honest lust for life

Well, what the heck. The Berlin Wall came down. So why not have not one but two Russian restaurants within about a mile of each other off Clayton Road in West County?

As I've noted many times previously in this space, Eastern European cooking has been under-represented locally, so I for one welcome the recent boomlet (several Bosnian places in the city and the two Russian spots now in the county), especially given that I grew up on liberal portions of dumplings and stuffed cabbage. In general, you'll be happiest at the newer of the two West County places, Lehaim, if you, too, are fond of stews and starches, as well as pointed, pronounced flavors like those of borscht, horseradish and smoked mackerel.

The atmosphere at Lehaim is fancy but still friendly, with a vaguely '70s retro feel projected by the black textured walls, black ceiling, black napkins and, most prominently, the disco ball above the small dance floor in the center of the dining room. The restaurant, located in the room that formerly housed Taj Mahal, seats more than 100, and we were able to compare a fully booked weekend visit with a sparsely populated middle-of-the-week meal. In both cases, our primary waiters were polite young men with Russian-sounding first names, whose service was exceptionally prompt and polished, with the exception of some minor rough edges.

As is the Russian custom, appetizers are a major element of the meal, with more than 30 to choose from. Best case, you should achieve some sort of general consensus and order "family style," sharing as many appetizers as possible. We grazed through several, including gefilte fish -- the first time I can remember seeing it on a menu outside of a deli. Lehaim calls it farshirovania riba, and it's served a whole lot like a sliced meatloaf, grayish in the center and fading off into red at the edges, which are surrounded by a light coating of aspic. The accompaniment is horseradish, and it's not the adulterated "horseradish sauce" that many local restaurants, even the best prime-rib houses, serve; rather, it's a sinus-vacuuming, coarsely textured dose of the real thing. Pelmeni are just plain dumplings, but the dough is ultrathin and soaks up its butter sauce, a simple pleasure that lasts for quite a while, given that there are 16 to a serving.

The borscht -- beet soup -- is hot-pink and loaded full with shredded beets and cabbage, dotted with little mottles of sour cream. Several varieties are included in the pickled forest mushrooms, which are tartly acidic with vinegar, and one of those "not for everyone" appetizers is the skumbria, four mackerel steaks still containing their center bones, smoked and sliced about a quarter-inch thick, resulting in a full-bodied fish flavor and oily texture further enhanced by rings of raw onion. I loved it; my wife took a pass.

We took two distinctly different tacks with our entrees on the two visits. The first time, it was hearty beef all the way, in the well-known preparation of stroganoff and the lesser-known zharkoe. The latter, a biscuit-topped stew served in a crockery bowl, is much more voluminous than it initially appears. It's just a basic beef stew, mainly consisting of slow-cooked chuck cuts, with the predominant flavor coming from black pepper, but it certainly comes in a large portion. The stroganoff, a bit more elegant, is served over noodles with green beans on the side; its sauce is a rich reduction of the beef juices.

Changing course on the next visit, we chose red snapper and galubtzie (cabbage rolls). In the latter dish, two large cabbage rolls stuffed with a rice-and-ground-meat mixture are topped with a light tomato-based sauce, along with some fresh broad-leafed parsley. The result is an earthy dish with mainly sweet overtones from the cabbage and tomato but no really overpowering central flavor. The snapper -- more a chunk than a steak or a fillet, with a slightly chewy texture -- is coated in a buttery, mild herb mixture and served with a cold relish of beets.

Desserts include several cheesecakes, cherry and apple pie, and chocolate cake -- pretty straightforward stuff, fine for what it is, but no real standouts.

One of the stumbles we encountered involved drink selections. Although Lehaim in part promotes itself as a "vodka bar," that particular taste sensation was never even offered to us as an alternative, nor were we ever really shown a wine list. We did manage, after initiating the conversation, to learn that Lehaim imports a Georgian wine that will probably bring back memories of man, oh, Manischevitz to those who have partaken of that ritual. It's a fully sweet wine available in both red and white, and, oddly enough, it's a good match especially for things like the gefilte fish with horseradish and the smoked mackerel, both of which would have overwhelmed a dry red or white wine.

We also watched in amusement as the diners at an adjoining table asked about wine selections and were presented with several choices of sparkling wines, all displayed on the group's table. However, once the choice was made, the patriarch of the gathering came as close as I've ever seen someone come to performing the ceremonial spitting-of-the-wine on the sommelier's shoes -- not because the wine was bad but because it had been served without being chilled. A thousand apologies later, the situation was rectified, but stuff like that should never happen.

At the same time, we experienced several instances of excellent attentiveness, such as when the hostess swooped down on us at the end of a meal after seeing that our own waiter had been waylaid by a large party. And even on the evening when the place was completely packed -- in large part, we observed, by Russian-speakers -- the food came out quickly, and the waiters rotated efficiently among their assigned tables.

Even with the swift service, though, Lehaim lives up to its claim to be a "European-style" restaurant, welcoming the very European art of the lingering meal for those who wish to pursue it. It will be interesting to see whether this new and relatively unusual approach can succeed in the Lamp and Lantern shopping center, whose difficult access and Byzantine layout and parking-lot patterns have caused any number of restaurants to rotate in and out of its various spaces, despite its location near one of the busiest corners in West County. Once you've gotten parked and through the door, however, the welcome at Lehaim is like a big bear hug, and the hearty, earthy meals are fully reflective of a culture with an honest lust for life.

LEHAIM, 195 Lamp and Lantern Village (Clayton and Woods Mill, Chesterfield), 230-3711. Hours: lunch, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Tue.-Fri.; dinner, 5-10 p.m. Tue.-Thu., 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Fri. & Sat., 5-10 p.m. Sun. Entrees: $11-$17.

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