Honest Graft at the Russian Tea Room; Septic Sushi Bathrooms
I hadn't 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 self-seriousness.
Maternal grandmother's 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 wedding reception.
I expected 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.
(And outside 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.
The Russian 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.
Our offices 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.
Cloying stench 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 bowl.
It's difficult 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.
The portions 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 food, potentially):
"In the 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.
Another problem 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.
Monster Sushi, 158 W. 23rd St. (betw. 6th & 7th Aves.), 620-9131.
Hana Sushi, 211 7th Ave. (betw. 22nd St. & 23rd St.), 620-9950.
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