been to the Russian Tea Room since I was, what, nine? So I was a nine-year-old
in a different city. This would have been the bitter cold early January of maybe
1980, which was one of the last moments during which you could see that weird,
grainy, tragic, gray-and-brown city of automats and wind and steam plumes from
cold-wasted streets and macho writers in tweed jackets and that residual modernist
Capricorn birthday–you had what must have been the rather wintry and severe
tableau of a small group of sharp-featured Slavs arranged in formation around
what was by then already an ailing dowager. A severe, poker-faced and probably
apparently poverty-stricken disputation, gliding toward a table through the
gold-and-Yuletide luxury of a restaurant that at that point was more central
to the city’s consciousness than it is now. I seem to remember that we
were there during the daytime, which would have made sense. Daytime is cheaper.
But I remember the place’s energy, which was considerable and impressive:
that bustling holiday energy, the sense of rarefaction in the Chanel-fragrant
air–the champagne-y air. Also a feeling of clarity, and plenitude.
My friend does
publicity for the Russian Tea Room, so she took me to eat there recently, for
the first time in 20 years. It was good, and empty, since we showed up on a
weekday evening in the middle of the postholiday slowdown. I had smoked salmon
and blini, which I rolled up and ate with my hands; we were serious into the
gin and the vodka by then, so it was like, the hell with it, use your fingers.
Then came a roasted lobster, with cornbread stuffing, citrus beet salad and
horseradish sauce. Food of a pre-revolution lushness. (The lobsters are trucked
in ice-wagons by serfs over bad roads all the way from the Gulf of Finland,
via Petersburg and Tikhvin.) My friend had the chicken Kiev, which is, of course,
what I’d eaten at the Russian Tea Room back when I was nine, and when I
was fascinated by the buttery ejaculation the knife’s first incision produced.
The two of
us sat there side by side in a central banquette along the left side of the
room (I felt like Lee Radziwill) in an empty, sleepy restaurant that, in that
postholiday slackness, felt less like an Institution than like someone’s
luxurious living room (yeah, yeah, yeah, there was the deep red, the Christmas
green, the glistening gold samovars). The hostess will be in and out, smiling
charmingly, but the place is all yours, feel free to ransack the kitchen–a
casual hospitality. Or else it felt like a stage set on a dark day, and you’re
free to roam, and the skeleton crew’s welcoming and smiling, but goes about
its business. Or whatever.
We took a tour
of the whole multi-story Russian Tea Room complex. There’s an elevator
up near the front now, which is cool. And off it we stepped into the hushed,
dim, off-hours quiet of some gilded and crystal-dripping banquet room several
abandoned stories up in the air: a huge Romanov hall you can rent out for your
some czarist deputation to show up in a flurry of medals, mustaches, ribbons,
cranberry-red coats, lace and Veuve Clicquot. The sort of hall in which Tolstoy’s
aristocrats stand around discussing the Napoleonic threat, sipping frozen vodka
and nibbling sardines, pickles and other zakuski.
the hall, in the servants’ corridor, there’s always some distant ancestor
of mine, a peasant who’s just finished stabling the horses, with a week’s
stubble and a sour expression, shoving the silverware down into his breeches.
He swipes a vodka bottle, too, and sits in the yard with his gaitered and rag-patched
feet splayed, throwing back his head under the bottle, guzzling as he throws
his Adam’s apple up to the sky.)
By the way,
if you’re on 57th St. and you’re well-dressed some evening, the Russian
Tea Room’s bar–up there near the front–would be a pleasant place
just to stop in and get a drink and feel elegant and on a roll and etc. On the
other hand, this might work only during the postholiday letdown. Any other time
of the year you might encounter here the perpetual and fundamental New York
restaurant Problem, which is the presence of too many other people. There are
very few remaining empty places. The race overspreads.
Tea Room, 150 W. 57th St. (betw. 6th & 7th Aves.), 974-2111.
The sushi places
I’ve been patronizing have put me in mind of filth. You get tired of these
gangrenous bathrooms they maintain.
aren’t far from the popular Monster Sushi on W. 23rd St., so once in a
while I drop in there after work and eat at the sushi bar, real fast, before
I take the subway back to Brooklyn. Claim a spot, drape over an adjoining chair
the various heavy garments necessary to the comfort of my body in this debilitating
climate we live in, sit, order my usual sashimi platter–then slink along
the wall toward the bathroom to wash my hands of the city-filth that covers
them. And it’s almost like a Hudson Line train bathroom in terms of grime,
except without the promise of a pure and snowy north.
of air freshener, and floors that stick to the bottom of my shoes, and a plywood
door, and humid, stinking tile splashed with something unwholesome, in the manner
of the bathroom tile in a scatological cartoon. The moist air clung to my skin,
and high water circulated–fat-colored and languid–in the jammed-up
to consume raw fish after experiencing something like that. I poked at flesh-hued
sweating chunks of protein with the end of a chopstick, demoralized. The bathrooms
at Hana Sushi around the corner–right around the way on 7th Ave.–
are no better.
at these places, meanwhile, are obscene. The pieces of fish are about the length
of your finger, so they’re two-bite pieces, which means people are forced
to eat raw fish with their hands. If you’ve read Gravity’s Rainbow,
you’ll remember that funny sausage-in-the-mouth motif, where Slothrop,
in his Rocketman incarnation, gets a knockwurst in his face every time he does
something foolish (like visit the bathroom in an establishment that serves raw
smoky Berlin sky, somewhere to the left of the Funkturm in its steel-wool distance,
appears a full-page photo in Life magazine: it is of Slothrop, he is
in full Rocketman attire, with what appears to be a long, stiff sausage of very
large diameter being stuffed into his mouth, so forcibly that his eyes are slightly
crossed, though the hand or agency actually holding the stupendous wiener is
not visible in the photo. A SNAFU FOR ROCKETMAN, reads the caption–‘Barely
off the ground, the Zone’s newest celebrity "fucks up."’"
I was Slothrop,
except instead of an unnamed agency wielding a sausage, there was a minute Japanese
fellow in sushi-chef whites with his foot braced against my face, gaining purchase
with which to pry my mouth farther open, so that with his free hand he can–cackling
in, you know, that inscrutable way–he can shove my mouth full of big, fat
strips of some sort of soft, limp, white fish.
is that when the pieces of fish are this big their odor is proportionally intensified.
Which isn’t much–but still. You get a faint piscine odor, coupled
with the scent-memory of the overflooding and humid-fragrant bathroom, and you’ve
achieved a variety of synesthesia that you wouldn’t wish on your worst
enemy. The brain sends queasy signals, and you feel it in your gut. You don’t
particularly want to finish your fish.
Sushi, 158 W. 23rd St. (betw. 6th & 7th Aves.), 620-9131.
211 7th Ave. (betw. 22nd St. & 23rd St.), 620-9950.