Our exposure to different cuisines has expanded exponentially. Food that used to be exotic now is broken down into specific regional specialties. We don't just go out for Chinese food, but rather decide on Hunan, Szechuan or Cantonese. For Japanese dining, there are places that specialize in sushi, tempura, soba or yakitori. As for French, well, there are bistros, cafes, brasseries and creperies. We seek new experiences, new flavors, new aromas.
And then there's Russian. I counted only three such establishments on the Midpeninsula, which makes Russian cuisine a more elusive option. I'm not sure I could tell a pirozhki from perestroika, but there's a fabulous place in Redwood City where you can learn the difference.
Russian Family Restaurant truly lives up to its name. The place is run by husband-and-wife partners Vladimir and Natalia Sommer -- she does the cooking and he manages the front of the house. They ran a restaurant in San Bruno for more than a decade and moved to their current location almost four years ago. Almost everything is made from scratch and introduces the supremely satisfying flavors of traditional, home-style Russian cuisine.
The décor is charming, if a bit amateurish. Latticework lines the walls, with lovely lacquerware and painted plates that are placed a bit too high to appreciate. The room is accented with ornate samovars and display cases of painted china and knickknacks. Generously spaced tables are topped with mustard-yellow tablecloths.
At dinner, visitors are greeted with a stainless-steel plate of brown bread and butter, along with a crisp salad with a terrifically pungent vinaigrette. The shuba appetizer ($8) is a terrine composed of layers of chopped herring, beets, potato and egg. It was beautiful to look at, and my companion and I were talking about how amazing it tasted a week later. All the components blended together into a meltingly flavorful medley of flavor -- fishy, earthy and light all at the same time. Another appetizer winner, seliodka ($10), is a generous slab of perfectly prepared herring with chopped onions and olives.
While the menu does feature some vegetarian options, most dishes are heavy on the meat. The menu warns that some entrees will take up to 25 minutes, since items are made to order, but we found the wait time was far less, so don't let that scare you off. Kotlety "Pozharskie" ($18), named after the 17th century Russian prince, are breaded chicken patties "made from a 200-year-old recipe," according to the menu. Served with velvety mashed potatoes and a medley of cubed carrots, beets and peas, the oversized patties were juicy and creamy, with a crunchy, crackly crust -- the best-ever chicken croquettes. There was a whiff of similarity in the babushkiny zrazy ($17.50), potato patties stuffed with ground beef and slathered with rich mushroom gravy.
Along with variations of dumplings and patties, the menu also features some more familiar offerings for the less adventurous, such as chicken Kiev, beef stroganoff and blini. Servings are more than generous and meant to be shared. The soup selection is varied, from mushroom-barley to sausage. Borshch Ukrainskiy ($5.75), a traditional Ukraine-style beet soup, was loaded with cabbage, pepper, carrots and tomatoes in a rich, meaty broth.
Perez farshirovaniy ($13) is one of the restaurant's most colorful plates: silky red peppers stuffed with ground beef and rice, and drenched with a delicious tomato sauce. Pork and beef-filled pelmeny myasom ($10.50) were bland, however, and reminiscent of Chinese dumplings, despite the side of sour cream for dipping.
The restaurant boasts a full bar, with a broad selection of premium vodkas and grappas. When I questioned why my Moscow mule ($8-$16) did not come in a copper mug, the owner came by to show me the beautiful copper tankards that are served with the more premium selections of vodka. The wine list is well-balanced, and there is a terrific variety of hard-to-find European and Russian beers on tap.
First-time diners should be aware that Russian Family Restaurant is a mom-and-pop affair in the truest sense of the word -- there are aspects that may make you feel like you are eating dinner at a relative's house. The food is warm and comforting and substantial, but service can be rough around the edges, though well-meaning and big-hearted. Entrees arrive willy-nilly, and checks can take a while to show up. And yet, we received an offer to open the umbrella outdoors when the sun broke through the clouds, and ingredients were carefully explained with a charming smile.
The food is wonderful at Russian Family Restaurant, offering an opportunity to explore a rich, satisfying cuisine that is not very common in our neck of the woods. Sommer said that changes are underway, with new entrees for dinner, an expanded menu for lunch and the addition of a happy hour.
Russian Family Restaurant
2086 Broadway St., Redwood City
Hours: Lunch: Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Dinner: Tuesday-Thursday, 5-9 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 5-10 p.m.
Credit cards: Yes
Outdoor seating: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar
Happy Hour: No
Wheelchair access: Yes
Noise level: Low
Bathroom cleanliness: Excellent