Russian in St. Louis

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    An all-you-can-Russian buffet might sound like a punch line, but the food at Astoria is no joke (though at $8.95 for lunch and $12.95 for dinner, it is a steal). Those who crave hearty Russian staples such as borscht, beef stroganoff and latkes will be more than satisfied, but be sure to try a few unfamiliar dishes: Golubtsy, beef and rice wrapped inside cabbage leaves, are compulsively edible; and the Uzbek dish honan is the love child of pork dumplings and lasagna. Chase it with one of many Russian beers or a bracing shot of icy vodka and be glad the Cold War is a distant memory.
    Blink and you'll pass right by this itsy-bitsy storefront restaurant and its down-home delicious Eastern European offerings. Gyros, blintzes, hummus, chicken Kiev -- all the classics of Greek, Armenian and Russian cuisines comprise the menu, as well as curious additions like Armenian dip (kidney beans, bits of fried white onion and sesame seeds, like a refried-bean dip with more integrity) and Ukranian-style goulash, which foregoes Hungary's sour cream and buttery noodles for a light, flavorful herb-based broth. The mother-daughter team running the joint -- Mom owns the place and cooks, daughter waits tables -- may come off as standoffish in that humorless, behind-the-Iron-Curtain way, but don't be intimidated. Besides, the food is imbued with enough love to make up for it.

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