In the hit 1982 comedy “Tootsie” — recently reincarnated as a Broadway musical — Dustin Hoffman stars as persnickety, perpetually out-of-work actor Michael Dorsey, who disguises himself as a Southern feminist actress, Dorothy Michaels, to land the role of what becomes a feisty hospital administrator, and breakout character, on a long-running TV soap opera.
Early on, Michael tries out his disguise on his long-suffering agent, George Fields (played by the movie’s director, Sydney Pollack), revealing his inner Michael through gritted teeth over lunch.
“I begged you to get therapy,” George explodes, not immediately grasping the pecuniary reasons for Michael’s cross-dressing.
But really, who needs therapy when you’re lunching, as they are, at The Russian Tea Room? The Art Deco-style Manhattan institution has been as much a part of movie New York as it has been of the everyday Big Apple since expat members of the Russian Imperial Ballet (now the Mariinsky Ballet) opened its doors in 1927. The tearoom figures in such other New York pictures as “Sweet Smell of Success,” “Manhattan,” “When Harry Met Sally,” “Big” and “The Turning Point,” along with TV shows ranging from “Gossip Girls” to “Saturday Night Live.” Beryl Cook painted it. Jay McInerney wrote about it in his novel “Bright Lights, Big City.” And a host of celebrities and artists — including Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Rudolf Nureyev, Woody Allen and Barbra Streisand — have dined there, which is not surprising when you consider that it’s but a couple of doors down from Carnegie Hall. (You know, practice, practice, practice.) Perhaps some of these luminaries even had their coats checked by Madonna, who worked there before she became, well, Madonna.
If Yours Truly may humbly be permitted, the tearoom figures in a key scene in my new novel “Burying the Dead” (JMS Books), about a rising Russian tennis star who’s really an agent and assassin. I mean, where else could some of the characters possibly exchange vital information except over an elaborate lunch there that features beef Stroganoff and a 24-karat gold leaf parfait, right?
Before you even get to the food, though, the restaurant has you at its décor. It’s all Russian red and green — which Vincent van Gogh said were the colors of passion. The studious, library green walls allow a collection of arresting paintings to pop. The red banquettes in turn allow for intimacy as well as enabling you to see and be seen — although in true discreet New York fashion you never feel intruded upon. The wait staff is
attentive without being obsequious.
It’s the kind of place that’s perfect for friends and lovers, although multigenerational families dine there as well, as I discovered when I popped in for the tea room’s scrumptious version of the classic Waldorf salad — with grilled chicken and honey mustard dressing — while between interviews on 57th Street back in November. At the time, I mentioned to my charming, young, blond waiter — who looked just like one of the characters in my book — that the tea room played a part in one of my new novels and, before I knew it, I was writing about this for the collection of stories the restaurant maintains on its website and receiving a gracious invitation to return with a guest.
So when my sister Jana gave me and our other sister, Wagger Gina Gouveia, tickets to a matinee performance of “Hamilton” as a Christmas present, The Russian Team Room seemed the natural choice for dinner.
We began with a slightly dirty Martini for her — shaken, not stirred, straight up with olives — made with Hammer + Sickle, one of 44 vodkas the restaurant serves, which she pronounced “smooth”; and for me a Cosmonaut, the tea room’s iteration of a Cosmopolitan — “a wild bilberry and cranberry blast of Jewel of Russia Wild Berry accented with lime and cranberry,” as the menu crystallizes it. Gina is a real foodie, not only a connoisseur of hospitality but a superb cook (ah, the memories of her version of Rao’s lemon chicken, like buttah). So I took her savoring of the vodka- and dill-marinated salmon and house pickled herring appetizer — served with black bread, potato blini, and pickled vegetables — as high praise indeed. I, on the other hand, am an indifferent cook, except for a few dishes that include my butternut squash soup. I must, however, bow to the tearoom’s purée of fall squashes, with toasted pumpkin seeds, minus the duck confit. It was creamier than mine, with a just right blend of tartness and sweetness. Thinking of it now, I could dive into a vat of it.
Staying with fish, Gina selected the pan-seared scallops, roasted squash and Brussels sprouts with pomegranate molasses, a favorite of hers. I had to go with the Stroganoff, red wine-braised beef short ribs with thick noodles, tossed in a creamy mushroom and black truffle cream sauce. The dish melted from the fork into my mouth. Mmmm.
Being dairy-free, Gina opted for raspberry sorbet, rather than cherry ice cream and sauce, with her Chocolate Mi-Cuit cake with molten center. Naturally, I had to taste it and found the bittersweet raspberry gave the cake a pleasant kick.
But, of course, I had to have the Czar’s Gold Parfait, with nougat cream, toasted almonds, chocolate sauce and edible 24-karat gold. (I skipped the caviar option). Not a traditional parfait, it was more like a delectable flying saucer of nougat cream surrounded by almonds and chocolate sauce and topped with the crinkly gold. It any event, it was certainly fitting treat for the little czarina in me.
Along the way there was a second round of drinks and some warm, comforting rooibus chai, a South African red bush tea with Indian spices, served Russian style in a glass with a holder. For what is the point of being at the tearoom if you don’t have tea?
After that, it was time for the powder room and the gift shop on the lower level. (The four floors include three devoted to private events — the second floor Bear Lounge, with its bear-shaped aquarium, parrot fishes and Fabergé egg tree; the third-floor Bear Ballroom, with its bear-accented glass walls and dancing bears chandeliers; and the fourth-floor Hearth Room, with its central fireplace and lit replica of Red Square.)
I can never pass up a gift shop, and as I stared into the glittering cases of jewelry, lacquered eggs and nesting dolls, I couldn’t help but think that the tea room’s history was like those dolls — a story within a story within a story. The restaurant has passed from the hands of one developer to another, been closed, reopened, closed and reopened again. (At one point it even belonged to the United States Golf Association, which planned on turning it into a golf museum — gasp.) Over time, it has seen some changes. If Kobe beef hamburgers now mingle on the menu with borscht, well, perhaps that’s inevitable for a Russian-American restaurant.
Standing in the bracing night afterward, waiting for our ride, my sister and I were both in high spirits — even as I giggled too long at something she said, no doubt the effect of the second Cosmonaut.
Somehow I think Michael Dorsey would understand.
For more, visit russiantearoomnyc.com.