From Russia with Latkes 

A Russian buffet in suburban Creve Coeur. Who knew?

Our first trip around the dinner buffet at Astoria, my girlfriend hesitated over the latkes. I knew what she was thinking. We'd tried Astoria's lunch buffet a few days earlier and gorged ourselves on the sweet, fluffy potato pancakes. Might as well sample something new, right? And all the other dishes looked and smelled so tempting. Besides, this was an all-you-can-eat buffet. She could skip the latkes now and return in ten or fifteen minutes for her fill.

I should have told her she was wrong. I should have told her to pile as many latkes on her plate as she wanted while she still could. Astoria is a buffet, but it's not like other buffets. For one, it's an all-you-can-eat Russian buffet. No one I told about the place had heard of such a thing — and everyone I told cracked a smart-ass joke about bread lines or death by stroganoff. I couldn't help but imagine Yakov Smirnoff shaking his head in wonder: "In Russia, buffet eats all of you it can."

More to the point, though: At Astoria you won't find row upon row of sneeze-guarded steam tables. There's no constant parade of carts from the kitchen as dour-faced bussers swap out trays of chicken wings and Jell-O cubes. At Astoria each dish is a pleasure as rich as a Chekhov story — and as fleeting. Once a platter — even a crowd-pleaser like the latkes — is empty, it's likely to be replaced by something else entirely.

I should have told my girlfriend this, but I didn't. First, I doubted she would have heard me. On a stage right behind the buffet stood a young couple belting out a Russian pop tune. Second, it meant more latkes for me. You need a strategy to deal with a buffet as remarkable as Astoria's. Mine is to be a greedy bastard.

Pretty much the only thing Astoria has in common with other buffets is its location in an unremarkable strip mall. This particular strip mall is in Creve Coeur and includes a 7-Eleven, a Heavenly Ham, a Curves for Women weight-loss clinic and (surprise) an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. If the location isn't inspiring, neither is the name on the front door: Astoria European Cuisine. I won't bother to explain how silly it is to describe anything but the continent itself as European. At any rate, it's a holdover from Astoria's former life. New owner Svetlana Podrabinok jettisoned her predecessor's pan-European menu; soon, I hope, she'll replace the nameplate.

Inside is a single, small room: a few booths, a dozen or so tables and an old-fashioned wood-paneled bar. At the center of this room is the buffet itself, two tables with chafing dishes. Behind the buffet is the aforementioned stage, and dangling above the buffet is — I kid you not — a mirror ball. On Friday nights after dinner, Astoria becomes a Russian disco.

I'll tell you exactly what Astoria looks like. It's the rec room in your grandparents' house after your grandmother has spent all day preparing a huge meal to celebrate your cousin's graduation from dental school. That probably doesn't explain the mirror ball (I guess — I don't know your grandmother), but it does account for the unflattering light, the shabby carpet and the framed works by Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light. You love your grandparents, of course, just not their décor.

Walk into Astoria on a buzzing Saturday night and you won't even notice these distractions. While my girlfriend and I and a few friends waited for a table, we admired a group of twenty Russians celebrating a birthday with frequent vodka toasts.

"We should sit with them," said one friend. Now, this friend is an opera aficionado — and therefore prone to melodrama — but in this case I sort of agreed.

I said, "I'm at least going to eat exactly what they eat."

Truth is, I wanted to try it all and filled my plate with a little bit of everything offered. In honor of Russian tradition, I began with soup — borscht, that classic Russian combination of beets, cabbage and meat. The beets provided a nice tang, similar to that of a fresh ripe tomato. In fact, I enjoyed the broth so much, I wished the buffet had offered bread to soak it up. Careful, though: Both this and the buttery meatball-and-potato stew are so hearty that if you ladle yourself more than a cup's worth, you might not have room for any main courses.

There was a brief commotion: another vodka toast. "You totally need to go over there and match them shot for shot," my girlfriend said.

Maybe, I thought, but too much vodka — it's available by the shot or the bottle — and I might not enjoy my beer so much. Astoria carries the usual, suspect American macrobrews, but ask your server about the Russian beers they carry — or, better yet, ask your server to surprise you. My girlfriend did and ended up with a bright, crisp lager from Baltika, a St. Petersburg brewery, and I scored an Aldaris, an astounding porter from Latvia. Its dark, caramel sweetness was the perfect counterpoint for the buffet's many savory dishes.

No matter how you approach the buffet — a little of every selection, or a plateful of one — you'll be eating meat, and lots of it. I'd suppose beef stroganoff is the dish most familiar to American palates, and Astoria's doesn't disappoint. The beef is thick enough to stand up to the spicy sour cream-based sauce, tender enough that the two easily melt together in your mouth. Musaka, although related to Greek moussaka, is more reminiscent of an English pot pie, chunks of beef and potato beneath a thick brown pastry crust.

Golubtsy, cabbage leaves stuffed with ground beef, rice and herbs, have a texture and taste much like pork dumplings — in other words, they're a delicious, compulsively edible treat. My girlfriend smiled when they arrived. "My father used to make these all the time when I was a kid," she told me. It was a bittersweet moment, actually; I'd had no idea before then that we'd had a connection to this great food.

One of the servers brought a sheet cake to the Russians. They sang "Happy Birthday" in English, then saluted the birthday girl with vodka.

My girlfriend and I wandered back to the line, looking for latkes. There were none, but I found what I think is my favorite dish: honan. An Uzbek dish, according to the owner, it's ground beef layered with a thin dough like phyllo, pan-seared and so richly spiced that the beef tastes like Italian sausage. Imagine the love child of a pork dumpling and lasagna — that's honan.

Really, the only disappointment at Astoria was the dessert tray, a modest selection of pastries, none of them Russian. With a nod to our Russian neighbors — many of whom had wandered away from their table by this point — we decided to finish our meal with a round of vodka. The bracing shots eased the walk back outside to the parking lot. The air was thick with auto exhaust, cooking grease from a half-dozen restaurants and the cigarettes of several of the Russians who'd gathered outside to smoke. Our friend the opera aficionado wanted a pack of cigarettes for the road. That 7-Eleven came in handy.

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