THE DISH: Beluga
Beluga//16 Naberezhnaya Makarova//Tel: 921 7278//Open daily from noon to 11.30 p.m.//Menu in English and Russian//www.beluga-bar.ru//Dinner for two with alcohol 2,470 rubles ($79)
Published: May 23, 2012 (Issue # 1709)
Brown bag lunch
Beluga is an interesting space. Its interior, dominated by red brick and wood, is certainly not reminiscent of a restaurant, but rather of someone’s country patio, an old mill or even an artist’s studio. Its rustic aura would trick people into feeling they had escaped the hustle and bustle of city life if only the whirring of embankment traffic weren’t so present in the background. The planked wooden tables, chairs and floors add to the establishment’s earthy feeling, as do the potted green plants hanging on the walls.
Three decently-sized rooms, a couple of which are lined by empty wine bottles, allow guests to spread out into different nooks, making the dining experience private and personal. The long-necked desk lamps clamped onto the edges of some of the square tables spotlight the brown paper bag-esque placemats and make diners feel like they’re playing architect.
The menus are made from the same paper as the placemats, and make a satisfying crinkling noise when the pages are turned. The restaurant has covered its bases, offering a solid but not overwhelming variety of soups, salads, meat, fish and pasta dishes — something for every taste.
After overcoming the initial disappointment that, despite the wide selection, Beluga was out of its liver appetizer, spirits again soared when trying the salad with beets and goat cheese, topped with roasted pine nuts (390 rubles, $12.50). The bitterness of the salad greens, earthiness of the beets and kick of the pungent cheese complimented each other swimmingly and paved the way for a filling meat entrée. The second starter, baked vegetables with Mozzarella (370 rubles, $11.85), was unfortunately not nearly as stellar as the first. Artfully stacked, a leaning tower of roasted veggies (zucchini, eggplant and tomato) and cheese fell flat — right into the pesto drizzle and fresh basil garnishing the plate. Most of the dish’s failure was due to suspicions that its components had not been freshly grilled, but rather nuked in the microwave.
Despite Beluga’s pleasant atmosphere, which is ideal for spending hours drinking coffee and reading a good book or sitting and enjoying a glass of wine or beer (120 rubles a bottle, $3.85) with friends, this enjoyment got quite old while waiting for the second course. It did, however, provide the opportunity to thoroughly admire the rest of the understated décor, including the tiled fireplace, whose white color was slightly reminiscent of a bathroom floor but nevertheless contributed to the room’s warm and homey feeling, especially with the iron statues and globe standing on its mantel. Next to the fireplace and built right into the wall was a faux woodpile of birch logs with only the ends of the logs glued onto the wall to create the clever illusion.
After a 25-minute wait for the entrees (during which the appetizer plates were licked clean and the mildly depressing bread basket (90 rubles, $2.90), which consisted only of white bread, was devoured), the main courses finally showed up and were worth the wait. The 680-ruble ($21.80) steak (really more of a fillet) served in a pepper sauce was lean, juicy and any meat-eater’s dream. What appeared to be delectable green, fleshy capers but in fact turned out to be eye-wateringly fierce peppercorns were scattered across the meat. The knife effortlessly slid through the medium grill and the meat was devoured without any hint of the chewy struggle that can sometimes accompany a steak dinner. The side of grilled vegetables, just like its appetizer cousin, was tepid and took a back seat to the beef.
The BBQ pork ribs (450 rubles, $14.40) were served on a simple wooden cutting board with a sheet of signature brown paper on it to help absorb the sauces. A red, doll-sized Le Creuset pot of homemade, buttery mashed potatoes also sat on the board. The sweet and tangy flavoring and tender pork left saucy smiles across the faces of all who tried it.
Service was friendly and unobtrusive, but at times a bit relaxed — perhaps a consequence of the establishment’s leisurely environment.