Why you should go: Where else in town can you get caviar blini with homemade cherry pierogi for dessert, and wash it all down with a shot of vodka?
How did you get from Russia to Madison? Originally I'm from Latvia, but I'm Russian - it's my native language. I came to Madison in 2001. I was just traveling in the States. I went to the Dells to see some friends who lived there and I decided to stay. I like the U.S. You can drive 20 hours south and lie down on the beach or go up north and ski without going through national border checks, like we did growing up in Europe.
I didn't get off the plane in America and say "I want to open a restaurant." But I enjoy cooking - I used to cook all the time for my friends. And I like this kind of business; I know I can handle it well. I worked in restaurants in Latvia and also in the Dells. I thought about opening my own place in the Dells. I wanted it to be like any little café in Europe, where you have to wait half an hour or more for your food 'cause they make it fresh for you instead of prepping it in advance, freezing it and warming it up quick in the microwave. But financially it's hard to start from scratch, so it was a good opportunity for me to get into the business when Arbat's original owner, who was a friend of mine, decided to sell and go back to Russia.
What's changed since you took over? I started in November. I heard that some people weren't satisfied with this place before, but I've made a lot of changes. We have a new look. I built a little bar. We have a pretty good selection of European beers right now, but I'm working on getting the best selection in town. I've also got vodkas, of course! We have over a dozen different kinds - you should try some. We give a big double shot, compared to an American shot. I made separate lunch and dinner menus. The lunch prices are aimed at tempting you to have a nice daytime meal, and the menu's a little shorter, but if there's something you crave from the dinner menu we'll make it for you any time.
And I've changed both the menu and the way the food's prepared. I've added some great dishes, and I use my own family recipes. They were my mother's, and my grandmother's before that. I do most of the cooking, but I have help in the kitchen. My whole staff is family - my girlfriend Yana and her parents work with me. She's from Ukraine, but we actually met in Madison.
What's your favorite dish? Everything's my favorite. The Zarski stuffed pork loin - I'm loving it. Russia is such a huge country, and every family has their own way of making borsch - we serve it just the way my mother made it back home. We have all kinds of dumplings with all kinds of fillings - potato-cheese pierogi, pelmeni with meat or chicken and mushrooms, dessert dumplings with fruit or sweet cheese. The cakes on our dessert menu are made specially for us by a local baker - they're Russian classics.