Caviar and Crooning at the LES's Moscow 57

Caviar and Crooning at the LES's Moscow 57

Some things run in family lines: creative streaks, male pattern baldness and, in the case of New York's Kaye clan, a knack for running restaurants. The family owned the famous Russian Tea Room for nearly 50 years (from 1947 to 1996) before selling the institution, but Ellen Kaye wasn't ready to bid farewell to the eat-drink-play lifestyle her parents inducted her into. She branched out with her own culinary and nightlife venture, imbuing a small restaurant and bar at the Manhattan mouth of the Willliamsburg bridge with her personal brand of extroverted energy. The woman is boisterous, bold and jazzy—and, appropriately enough, so is Moscow 57.

Aesthetically, the place is a funky, eclectic mix between a black box theater and a Central Asian hookah den: blood-red walls lined with art (from black-and-white photos to colorful abstract paintings to Middle Eastern-inspired tile work), red paper lanterns, Arabesque woodwork on the bar. You can catch Ellen Kaye there nightly—more often than not in some fabulous, sparkling top, which she'll change multiple times per evening—crooning out jazzy covers of classic tunes. She shares the stage with a cool and easy house band, and acts that range from Harlem-style scat to queer keyboardists (check the blog for schedules and events: www.moscow57blog.wordpress.com). A cozy crowd of locals, visiting foreigners and bar flies who love live tunes make the place buzz.

When I visited, just a couple months after the opening, the gas had yet to be installed in the kitchen, but that didn't stop Chef Seth Goldman from making a whirlwind of elegant plates. The food, like the décor (and Ellen herself), is ecclectic and fun, with an international mix of Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian classic, plus some dashes of Uzbekitan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. A pleasing selection of zakuski (Russian tapas) are great for sharing at the table: buckwheat blinis topped with plump salmon roe and sour cream or smoked salmon; yogurt with honey and pita; a mouth-watering plate of feta, dates, assorted nuts, dried apricots, sugared ginger, pomegranate and fresh mint. Deviled eggs stuffed with dill cream are sinful, while a Shirazi cucumber and pomegranate salad (with grapes, garlic, lime, sesame oil, honey and hot pepper flakes) makes for a tastebud trip. Warm, pistachio-crusted shrimp—over arugula, beet and tomato salad—vansihed as soon as they were set down. Fresh branzino, plated whole and drizzled with lemon and garlic was simple and moist. Salmon tartar, served in a circular stack of pumpernickel, cucumber, sour cream and salmon roe layers, may have been the brightest star. The food came out in seemingly unending waves and, like despotic czars, we ate with abandon. 

Cocktails are heavy-hitting and vodka-centric (this is a Russian spot, after all). The Delancey (pickle- and dill-infused vodka, pickle juice, grated horseradish) delivers a powerful yet not overwhelming kick. The New Orleans Martini (vodka, vanilla, dry vermouth, absinthe) is smooth, seductive and strong. Those who really want a Russo-experience should go for the Moscow Mule (vodka, lime juice, ginger beer, grated ginger), copper mug and all. Do like the Russians do and drink, drink, drink. 

Even though it's relatively new, Moscow 57, in many ways, represents a rapidly disappearing Old New York—the New York that is casual, multi-cultural and filled with friends. A New York where live music is a given, laughter spills onto the sidewalk, and old mixes with young.  It's a zany, unsterile, quirky kind of New York vibe, and isn't that what you came to this city seeking in the first place?