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Nasha Rasha, worst Russian restaurant in Manhattan?

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For pictures, please check out my blog post (http://foodperestroika.com/2013/11/12...).

In (or very near) the Flatiron District, Nasha Rasha took over the spot of former Bazar Mediterranean Bistro, right next to another Eastern European restaurant, Café Prague. The name translates as “Our Russia”, although you’ll quickly find that Their Russia looks a lot like a parody of the USSR.
Indeed, the walls are painted red and covered with Soviet flags and communism-inspired images, with neon stars and a prominent hammer and sickle. Waitresses wear Young Pioneer scarves and T-shirts with the famous не болтай propaganda image. Nasha Rasha even went a step further, and raided eBay’s military memorabilia section, so that patrons can share highly original pictures of themselves wearing Soviet hats on Instagram. To complete the decor, shelves upon shelves of brightly lit vodka bottles are mounted around the room. Hammer and sickle paradise, vodka heaven — what’s not to love? (Spoiler: everything else. The food, the service, the prices.

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The menu covers the gammut of Russian cuisine, with additions from the former Soviet Republics, but without the Brighton Beach oddities (i.e., no foie gras, no lengthy seafood section). You can order from a selection of half a dozen soups, a dozen salads, two dozen other appetizers, and a dozen mains. There’s herring, salo, borsch, vareniki, pirozhki, kutabs, cutlets of all kinds, and lyulya-kebab. Pickles and Stroganoff have their own sections. Just be sure, after making your choices, that you have a Plan B. Several dishes are likely 86′d, and the menu you might have looked at outside the restaurant doesn’t match the one you get inside.
In addition to the food menu, you’ll also get a vodka menu. Well, sort of. The list only includes an impressive number of house-made flavored vodkas. If you want a commercial brand, go read the names on the bottles behind the bar. Just don’t expect the A.D.D. staff to help you much; it’s hard enough for them to remember your order. At best, they’ll recommend you get a shot of Russian Standard, or come back 5 minutes later to tell you the flavored vodka you chose is not available.

On to the food. Every table gets a board of lightly toasted Russian black bread and butter. The bread’s good, but if you don’t go easy on the butter, be prepared to reek of garlic for the rest of the night.
The very large salo plate, presented on a pig-shaped wooden board, included three kinds of cured pork fat: one plain, one coated with paprika, almost sweet, and one crusted with black pepper, with some lean meat (bacon-style). All were good, but that’s way more fat than one single person can eat, even after several shots of vodka. Except for the tasty mustard, the accompaniments are of the hick drunkard variety: whole raw garlic cloves, coarsely sliced raw onion.
The “Russian sushi” sounded interesting on paper: lox, cream cheese, and cucumber, wrapped in blini, served like a Japanese roll, topped with red caviar. What came to a table was quite disappointing. First, the salmon roe tasted questionable (as in less-than-fresh), and the salmon lox was so-so, the kitchen having made no effort to remove the brown part. Then, a number of uninvited ingredients were rather detrimental. I don’t remember finding the promised cream cheese, but I did see some surimi — the point of serving fake crab with real smoked salmon and caviar is beyond me. Inside the blini, there was also a sheet of nori that completely overpowered the rest of the ingredients. Without being a nori specialist, I know that as with any other ingredient, there’s good nori and bad nori. The roll was finished with a couple of antennae made of greasy-tasting deep-fried spaghetti. Believe it or not, this mess fetched over $20, more than the “equivalent” in many Japanese restaurants for an infinitesimal fraction of the quality.
The lamb cheburek (fried meat turnover) wasn’t very much like any I’ve encountered before, but it tasted pretty good regardless. There was much more of the rather lean lamb filling than is customary, and I liked that. The fried dough was a bit too greasy.
The khachapuri arrived with tons of dill on top, and more herbs inside. The cheese tasted good, but the herbs ruined it. I have never seen a khachapuri like that in Georgia. This isn’t an improvement. My craving for khachapuri remained completely unsatisfied, and the totally insipid dough reminded me of frozen thin-crust pizza.
The meat pirozhki reached a new low, as well. I often complain about pirozhki containing too little filling, but I’ve never seen anything remotely close to Nasha Rasha’s. These consisted almost exclusively of very heavy dough, with so little meat filling inside that I couldn’t even venture a guess as to what it was: chicken? veal? with carrots? I can only go by the colors of the mixture. There was also no salt whatsoever in the dough, but since we didn’t force ourselves to eat more than one piece each, this ultimately didn’t matter. It also looks like dill is the only herb that grows in Their Russia. I saw it on 80% of the dishes we tried.
The veal pelmeni were a bit doughy, though not nearly as ridiculous as the pirozhki. We could taste the meat and it tasted good! The dumplings, served in a metal pot with a bit of broth at the bottom, weren’t tossed in butter, which explains why the ones on top were a bit dry.
The pasta po-flotski kind of proved that you can cook a dish with very few ingredients, but the result is rarely spectacular (unless chocolate’s involved). It’s basically made of 3 ingredients: undercooked pasta, mystery meat, and the ever-present dill. 5 if you count the slightly excessive oil and salt. The single portion was large enough for four people — no exaggeration. It tasted somewhat okay, but this is more the kind of subsistence food I remember eating back in the days just before and after the collapse of the USSR, when the grocery stores were completely empty and getting emptier every day, than what I expect to eat in a restaurant. But anyway, nobody forced us to order the dish! Regarding that mystery meat, the menu said ground beef. I say chopped pork. Which makes me wonder how many customers have eaten pork, camouflaged with salt in the obscurity of the dining room, without even knowing it. I’ve heard of class-action lawsuits filed for stuff like that...
The chicken Kiev was another huge entrée, most likely a whole breast of bland, obese industrial chicken, with no salt this time. Usually the dish contains a large chunk of butter in the middle, which melts during cooking and serves as sauce. This version only had a little bit of butter and herbs, and therefore very little flavor. The rock-hard breading was among the thickest I’ve ever seen, and yet the whole mass was served atop a piece of toast, which served no real purpose but actually turned out to be the tastiest thing on the plate. As for the spoon on the plate — since there’s no melted butter, there’s nothing to spoon!!! The mashed potatoes were most likely store-bought potato flakes (tip: if you wanna get away with it, add lots of butter, and season properly with salt and pepper).
And now, in some ways the worst offender of the lot: the lyulya kebab. First, I estimated this behemoth of a dish weighed a whopping 20 oz (without the pan, of course). Then, in a display of cultural carelessness, the lyulya kebab was really a lamb cutlet. Not even a good one. It tasted just okay, its meat too compact. To make a good cutlet, you don’t squeeze the meat between your palms like a brute. The potatoes were both greasy and soggy and reeked of garlic. It should come as no surprise that the meat was topped with thick slices of raw onion — it’s just part of Nasha Rasha’s ignorant conception of Caucasian cuisine.
Finally, against all odds, the beef Stroganoff was interesting. Remember how I always complain that the meat is too tough? Well here, it was stewed until tender. The sauce tasted mostly of meat juices with cream, no mushroom or onion in sight, but our expectations had fallen so much at that point that we didn’t complain. No mushrooms is much better than canned mushrooms. The fried potatoes tasted fine (and they were salted properly), never mind that we had ordered French fries. This is the only dish that we finished, apart for the stupid side salad with the orange dressing. In fact, this is the dish that saved us from starvation despite having ordered several pounds of food.
We didn’t try the desserts, but I can tell you the options were “Russian” ice cream, vareniki, syrniki, and blini with half a dozen different fillings. Except for the ice cream, they go for $15 to $18 — a high price, even by NYC standards, for a few ounces of flour.

Some of you might be thinking that even if the food is mostly disgusting, it could still be worth patronizing Nasha Rasha for the endless varieties of vodka. You would be only partly right. The flavored vodkas were quite good — some of them, that is. Two out of the five flavors we wanted to try weren’t available. Two of them were very successful: the blood orange vodka was sweet and bitter like the fresh citrus itself, and the bacon vodka tasted very smokey and slightly sweet. Both contained around 25% alcohol in my estimation. The last flavor, beef vodka, wasn’t sweet at all, and smelled rather strange (my partner proclaimed “dog food”). These shots were $9 each. As for the commercial vodkas, at least half of what you see on the walls is not for sale, we were told. So if you’ve drunk a few vodka brands in your life, you may very well have already tried everything Nasha Rasha has to offer, and probably for less money. A shot of Hammer and Sickle Vodka costs $12, while a bottle costs $20-25 in stores (but you don’t get to wear the military hat).
On the non-alcoholic beverage front, which is speckled with 86′d entries like the rest of the menu, we tried a nice kompot with a sweet berry flavor.

I hope you liked this post. I spent over $350 to write it, and got very little pleasure out of the food. I actually ate at this joint twice. After the first visit, I realized I had mostly tried non-Russian dishes (Caucasian, Ukrainian, Tatar), and made the absurd hypothesis that the Russian dishes might taste better.
Most of the restaurants I’ve reviewed recently were rather good, so I guess it was only a matter of time before I hit a really bad one. And Nasha Rasha is seriously bad. It feels a little bit like, in order to cope with the oversized menu, the cooks are adapting the dishes on the fly based on their meager skills and whatever happens to be in their fridge. Not enough filling left for the pirozhki? Don’t prepare more, just use extra dough! No ground beef for the po-flotsky? Use pork! If the customer’s Jewish or Muslim, well, too bad! Got a deal on expired salmon roe and cheap nori? Let’s put it in the Russian sushi! Don’t know how too make a lyulya-kebab? Don’t worry, it’s just the word those Azerbaijani savages use for what We call a cutlet!
You might think I’m being a little bit harsh with Nasha Rasha. After all, they have 3.5 stars on Yelp. However, if you look closer and filter out the Yelpers who either didn’t try the food or ended the night in a drunken stupor (the place is pretty popular with large groups), you’ll find a category of people who, just like me, found that “food and service were both awful”, “portions are huge, but… disgusting”, “everything is pretty terrible: food, service, ambiance”, and “the food sucks, the staff sucks”. The fact that they have over 100 filtered reviews (the term used by Yelp for reviews they suspect are paid advertising) makes me wonder how many more good reviews were traded for a few free shots of vodka.

 
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  1. yep, it's no good...even the happy hour snacks i had there a year ago were pretty nasty...

    1. Sounds bleak....I wouldn't eat this type of food in the city outside Brooklyn

      1. Fun read and a fun blog. I'll be following.
        I'm surprised they didnt give you a side of dill for the meal to add as you wish. Funny to see Pasta poflotski in a Russian place (even tho its a Russian dish). Thats my kids favorite part of Borscht ;)

        Have you been to Moldova in Brooklyn (nice mamaliga), or Kashkar Cafe?

        What are your favorites?

        1. You clearly know the food better than I do (much to my Russian bubby's chagrin) but the experience you had is consistent with my one visit there - for a happy hour only.

          Their website bills the happy hour special as 2 shots and 2 appetizers for 10 bucks. I didnt have the highest expectations given the billing but it was prety sad - the savory flavored vodkas were actually pretty good (dill/horseradish, and maybe a beet one?) the appetizers were sad/scary (I dont fault the cooks here really, im pretty sure any cuisine that thinks that all salads must contain over 50% mayo is just not for me) BUT and this was the ridiculous part - their "Happy Hour" is actually a 1 per person deal. did i expect to get 10 shots of vodka for 50 bucks? no, but I was a little surprised when the waitress came around to ask about another round and told us the drink prices had just gone from 2/10 on the first round to 11 each on the second (i was, again, totally okay foregoing the second round of appetizers).

          1. Thanks for such a comprehensive review, p'ka; I actually passed by the place yesterday and wondered if it was worth a visit.
            And, just as reading a review in the NYRB excuses you from having to read the whole book, your critique saves me the trouble of having to sit through a mediocre meal. Spasibo.

            1. I went once and recall (vaguely) not enjoying the appetizers. That said the bartender let me sample a lot of the flavored Vodkas and some of them were really good. The bartender was pretty generous actually and there are some interesting combos like chocolate and bacon. If you enjoy flavored vodkas this is an interesting option.

              That said if I thought the appetizers were memorably bad after a good deal of vodka I would imagine that it would be awful sober

              1. You really took one for the team. Excellent writing. I have zero knowledge of Russian/Soviet food, but authenticity aside, bad is bad. I do know that Beef Stroganoff should be tenderloin lightly sautéed, not stewed.

                1 Reply
                1. re: mwhitmore

                  Echoing the thanks for a most enjoyable read!

                  Just noticed that they are offering a "deal" on Groupon.

                  http://www.groupon.com/deals/nasha-ra...

                2. The funny thing is that this review tells me that Nasha Rasha is probably the most authentic Soviet-style restaurant ever to open in NY. Half of the menu's not available? Check! Chebureki super greasy? Exactly! Mystery meat in the pirozhki and pasta? Perfect! Dill as the only flavoring? Spot on! Shockingly overpriced for what you get? That's my Russia!

                  The only part they got wrong is that the pasta in the pasta po-flotskiy ought to be very OVERcooked, not undercooked. Someone should tell the kitchen.

                  (As you may guess, I have lived/traveled in the USSR and Russia for a long time. This review almost makes me nostalgic for the early 1990s.)