Firebird, the two-year old Russian restaurant, is dazzling. It seems like
a fantasy of what life was like for the noble classes in czarist Russia. Two townhouses
joined as one emulate a St. Petersburg mansion, circa 1912, and brighten up New York's
Restaurant Row (West 46th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues). Even the name is fabled.
Firebird, the Diaghilev ballet, scored by Stravinsky, is based on a Russian folk
myth about a legendary bird who stole the Czar's golden apples from his garden. A
shiny gilded tree in the center of the downstairs back dining room resembles an illustration
that might have come from that very book of fairy tales. And upstairs the saga continues
with a display of costumes from the Bolshoi Ballet's original production of "The
Could homes have been this opulent in pre-Bolshevik days? Apparently some were,
as illustrated by the period photographs on the walls. Our own memories of a visit
to St. Petersburg's Yusupov Palace confirms that image and like the palace, museum-quality
treasures are crammed into Firebird's every nook, including curio-filled cabinets
in the bathrooms. No space is undecorated and leather bound books, fine furniture,
porcelain, china, gold framed mirrors, jewelry, Fabergé eggs and objets d'art
are too abundant to appreciate in one viewing. Each of four dining rooms has its
The food is lavish, too, enticing you to return more than once and to sit in a
different room to enjoy just about everything on the menu as well as on the walls.
Our favorite is the $19.50 pre-theatre meal served from 5 p.m. until 7. Other New
York restaurants offer a $19.99 (priced for the year's date) lunch or dinner, particularly
in June during restaurant month, but nothing tops the one at Firebird.
It starts with pokhlyobka, a large bowl of wild mushroom and three grain
soup, followed by five ample portions of the day's zakuska (hors d'oeuvres),
such as smoked sturgeon, lamb shashlik, herring caviar, chicken salad with walnuts
and roasted eggplant caviar. Your waiter, dressed in a white Cossack tunic, trimmed
with gold braid, then presents a covered dish of feathery buckwheat blini, sour cream
and a pitcher of melted butter.
Appetizers that dispel the image of Russian food as dull are pelmini (dumplings)
and crisp seared sweetbreads. If you think borscht is peasant soup, Firebird's version,
served as an entree, will cast off that notion in less time than the revolutionaries
unseated the czar. Ukrainian borscht is a rich and complex dish made of beets, smoked
pork loin, brisket, duck and pirojok (fruit-filled turnovers). Perhaps the
best main course is the utka s fruktami, roasted duck breast and confit leg
with mushroom vareniki and sour cherry sauce. Nightly specials feature tender
beef stroganoff and butter-oozing chicken Kiev.
For dessert order a plate of chocolates and sweet confections, large enough for
four to share. And to drink, honey vodka, a libation so smooth and delightful, you'll
want to sip it before and after the meal.
Firebird, 365 West 46th Street, New York, NY, 10036. Tel. 212-586-0244.
Open, lunch, Tuesday to Saturday; dinner, seven nights. Moderately expensive.