In some ways the owners of Stoli are wonderfully naïve about American culture; in others, wonderfully sophisticated and knowing. The menu satirically puts an adjective on every single dish. So it is soothing mushroom soup, enticing chicken on the grill, honorable chicken kebab, and noteworthy grilled portobello mushroom. The appetizers have more adjectives than the Boy Scouts: fun, distinguished, elegant, famous, fashionable, delicious, trendy, home-style, noteworthy, low-calorie, and lavish. New dishes will surely be invented for upright, reverent, and cheerful. Some things are a mixture of American and non-American culture: the bar has a plasma TV, but it’s tuned to Animal Planet, not the Red Sox game. So the biggest impending series in this restaurant is the meekrats, not the Toronto Blue Jays.
Stoli: From Russia, with good food.
Food starts off solidly with a basket of dense Russian-rye slices and sweet butter. If you don’t finish the bread, it will be sent home in your doggy bag, which is a wonderful idea. Celebrated “Ukrainsky” borsch ($4) is a hearty vegan soup made mostly of cabbage and some carrot, and subtly flavored with cloves. A few beets give the soup a pink tint, and it’s served in what most Bostonians will describe as a bean pot, with a dollop of sour cream on the side.
Renowned vareniki with potatoes ($8) is starch heaven: eight dumplings in the shape of fat Peking ravioli, stuffed with a mashed potato. It’s served with a cabbage-and-mushroom relish and more sour cream, which makes for a fine sauce. The distinguished Russian tower ($12) is a pile of folded blintzes topped with smoked salmon. Large salmon caviar, capers, and onions are served on the side.
The fashionable Atlantic smoked eel ($9) is actually a salad, though fans of Japanese restaurants’ grilled eel will not be overwhelmed. The eel here is cold, not very smoky, and more fish-flavored. It does, however, offer a nice salad of field greens. The home-style thick-cut grilled eggplant ($7) is an outstanding starter, as the eggplant is cold, marinated, and served with a sharp walnut sauce/stuffing.
Moving on to the entrées, the adjectives are right on. Popular beef Stroganoff ($17) deserves to be popular if it isn’t already. The strips of steak and mushrooms in a savory cream sauce are hard to beat, especially when mixed with excellent mashed potatoes and vegetables (zucchini, carrots). It’s served in a bean pot as well. The indulgent duck-breast dish ($18) offers nicely sautéed medallions served with a cranberry-sauce-stuffed baked apple. It also comes with more of those mashed potatoes and token veggies.
Praiseworthy Karsky lamb ($23) is one of the best racks around at its price. It comes with four cooked-to-order baby chops, oven-fried potatoes, a few veggies, and a spicy sauce. Succulent veal chops ($26) are not the large rib chops we usually see, but baby ones arranged in a similar boned-up cage and well-seasoned with a dark, peppery jus along with mashed potatoes and vegetables.
The wine list doesn’t give vintages, but it has some good bottles at unusually good prices. Our bottle of MacMurray Ranch pinot noir ($7/glass; $26/bottle) was light, crisp Sonoma pinot noir at its best — wonderful with or without food. (Yes, the wine was “cured from the homestead of late-actor Fred MacMurray,” but his screenwriter-daughter who runs the property is no absent-minded winemaker.) I was a little disappointed not to get a taste of the sweet Georgian Kinzmaurauli Kavket ($9/$34), which was out of stock. And the tea — Stash-brand sachets in a tall cup of hot water — ($2) was somewhat casual for a Russian restaurant. They don’t stock decaf, but the espresso ($3) is the real thing. You can also order homemade flavored vodkas.
Desserts ($4) were very good for the price, though they were not at the same level as the rest of the meal. Still, no one will have a problem with the decadent chocolate cake — a tall, thin slice of richly flavored cake with vanilla ice cream on the side. In fact, almost every dessert at Stoli comes with vanilla ice cream. The crêpes are actually blintzes filled with apple-raspberry compote. And the Stoli apple pie — which comes with a similar compote, an excellent pastry, and some loosely topped walnuts — was a little deconstructed. Though the crème brûlée hadn’t gelled, the burnt-sugar topping was fine. You had to work it into spoonfuls of what tasted like melted ice cream.
Service at Stoli was quite good and charming. There was a pause — probably for the kitchen to assemble things — between appetizers and entrées. The atmosphere, on a quiet weeknight, was hard to estimate.
The room has been redone rather formally with yellow walls, lacquer-topped tables, a white tin ceiling, red banquettes, pink lights, and table-top silk orchids. The food can also be elaborate, so this might be the quiet, not-too-expensive, romantic place I’m often asked for —especially if they make the lighting dimmer.
Stoli Bar & Restaurant, 213 Washington Street, Brookline | Sun–Thurs, noon–10 pm; and Fri-Sat, noon–midnight | MC, VI, DC | full bar | no valet parking | up three steps from sidewalk level | 617.731.5070
Email the author
Robert Nadeau: RobtNadeau@aol.com