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Thursday, July 24, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 78.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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FOOD AND DRINK

Arbat: From Russia to Fitchburg with love
Get some borscht with your blini

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Arbat
3000 Cahill Main, Fitchburg, 277-0661
11 am-2 pm, 5-8 pm Mon.-Fri.; 11 am-8 pm Sat.; noon-4 pm Sun.
Reservations recommended. Entrees $6-$13. Wheelchair accessible.
Free parking. Nonsmoking. Major credit cards, checks.

Russian cuisine has never quite captured the American imagination, except in a few Eastern European enclaves in our larger cities, where memories of Mama's cooking lure diners. In Madison, Boris Vykhodets made a game attempt in 1993 with his Russian House, on West Johnson Street, but the experiment was short-lived.

Now we have Arbat, another authentic Russian eatery, serving out of a lightly traveled strip mall in Fitchburg. This restaurant, named for Moscow's most happenin' tourist street, is owned by Art and Yulia Serenko, from St. Petersburg. With its bright lighting and hard tile floors, Arbat has all the charm of a hospital cafeteria. But good food can overcome that.

The menu is devoted to many of Russia's traditional peasant foods. (The Russian nobility imported French chefs.) The staples ' pork, beef, chicken, potatoes, cabbage and beets ' are worked into blini, dumplings, pierogis, soups and more, most served with sour cream. All the menu items are written in both English and Russian, and a full page is devoted to providing customers with a brief Russian language lesson.

The blini, which are large crepes, are stuffed with mushrooms, chicken or ground meat. Among four salads is the Oliver (named for a French chef), the most typical of Russian salads, combining potatoes, eggs, carrots, pickles, peas and chicken with mayonnaise dressing.

A recent evening visit with two friends met with mixed results. We began with a Russian-brewed Baltika beer, of which six are listed on the menu. Two of us chose Baltika #6, the porter, which is a thick, dark, rich brew, a little sweeter than Guinness and very good. The Baltika #3, which is Russia's best-selling beer, is a light pilsner with a smooth finish. (No wine or spirits are served. We enjoyed a pre-dinner cocktail at the Great Dane, just a few doors away.)

Two of us ordered a cup of borscht, and this turned out to be the highlight of our meal. The classic beet-based soup is served hot, with bits of pulled beef, diced beet root and potatoes, onion and shredded cabbage, all swimming in beef stock. With a dollop of sour cream (served on the side), this could be a meal in itself, with some good Russian rye.

Unfortunately, the Russian rye here is a weak imitation of the real thing. My other companion had chicken soup with dumplings, which was underseasoned, as unremarkable as the bread.

Almost every culture has a dish in which a morsel of meat is encased in dough and then boiled or steamed: Chinese wontons, Tibetan momos, Italian ravioli. At Arbat, there are Siberian pelmeni, which are made before your very eyes, since the kitchen is an island smack in the middle of the dining area. The dough is rolled out, cut to size, filled with a meat morsel, cooked, then tossed in melted butter and garnished with sour cream and parsley. These were fresh and tender, although lacking any discernable flavor beyond the dough.

Pierogis are endemic in Eastern European cultures, and have now become popular in many parts of the United States. The Russian version is called potato vareniki, and these, too, are freshly made in-house. Dumplings are filled with mashed potato and served with, of course, sour cream. The pierogis I have had back home in Pennsylvania were enlivened with onion, cheese, salt and pepper, and even then were not the most exciting of foods. Let's call them a comfort food. At Arbat, the potato vareniki are filling, to be sure, but, like the pelmeni, lacking in any distinctive flavor.

I chose golubtsi for my entrÃe. This is another dish with hundreds of versions in almost every European country. They are, simply, stuffed cabbage rolls. I grew up on these things, and in fact I have fond memories of them, sitting at my mother's table. In Pennsylvania, we called them halupkies. The cabbage leaves are boiled just until wilting, stuffed with a mixture of ground meat, rice, onion, tomato sauce and oregano or basil, then doused in more tomato sauce (or soup) and baked in the oven.

At Arbat, the stuffed cabbage leaves (two of them, the size of large burritos) are simmered in beef stock and served in a thin pool of tomato and sour cream sauce. These golubtsi did not take me back to Mama's dining table, and in fact were bland, seemingly lacking any spice or seasoning.

We finished our meal with a cup of hearty coffee and an order of vareniki, which are little cherry-filled dumplings ' another Russian version of food stuffed into dough. These were singularly unimpressive, the dough heavy and sticky, the cherries appearing to be canned pie filling.

Arbat may become a popular spot for Madison's modest but growing Russian community, but with so many good and exciting restaurants in town, it's doubtful that many people will go out of their way to indulge in bland variations of stuffed dumplings.

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