After the eggplant salad, the tomato slices with creamy dots of herbed cheese, the smoked salmon, the pirozhi pastry stuffed with ground beef and the basket of soft rye bread, you're ready for a nap, or at least a good lounge. But this is Golden Gates restaurant on a Saturday night, and according to the server and his ever-loaded tray, you're just getting started.
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Golden Gates, like Melody, Emperor, X.O. and others, is a local Russian banquet hall, but it's considered the largest and the grandest, a kind of cultural epicenter for the Russian-speaking Northeast. If you have a special occasion, you bring a large number of people for a massive feast. (Reservations are required.)
"It's pretty much booked every weekend," says Tanya Steinberg, chief operating officer of International House. Steinberg held a 300-person wedding for her daughter at Golden Gates last spring. "People come here to speak their own language, mingle with friends and dance."
The rules: You bring your own vodka, your most glittery clothing, a bunch of flowers and possibly a card with money for the host. (If you pay for yourself, the total experience, entertainment and all, will set you back about $30 to $55 a head.)
You get a lot for your money at Golden Gates. For appetizers, there's a dense mushroom and cheese casserole with sour cream and sautéed onions; boiled baby potatoes with parsley and garlic; and dainty, buttery blini (aka blintzes) folded like handkerchiefs and served with a bowl of glassy-red salmon roe. These dishes are followed by the main courses, including braised beef cubes; potato mushroom croquettes; chicken stuffed with mushrooms and onions; a deep-fried ball of a poussin bursting with juice; and whitefish fillets filled with crabmeat and served with piped pureed potatoes. Then, a bowl of pineapple slices and clementines accompanies a dessert plate of mini fruit tarts, mini chocolate mousse cake and mini cheesecake drizzled with chocolate syrup. And, finally, coffee.
As abundant and elaborate as it is, the food is actually secondary here. The real action is on the packed dance floor. On the stage above, a man in shockingly tight pants one of the restaurant's many live performers sings Billy Joel's "New York State of Mind," his silhouette aglow in red and blue spotlights and drifting puffs of dry ice. Parties last well into the night.
There's a smaller dance floor at the newer Pirosmani on Krewstown Road and Grant Avenue, but I'm told it still gets pretty rowdy after dark. This Georgian-style BYOB boasts gracious service and an elegant dining room with impressive original artwork. Georgian cuisine is a world unto itself, evidenced by the kidney bean salad and fried eggplant dishes slathered with thick walnut paste. The pleated dumplings, or khinkali, are stuffed with pork and served with a sprinkling of black pepper. Another favorite is the Imeruli Khachapuri, a thick wedge of bread stuffed with white cheese that's both tangy and salty, and served hot out of the oven.
A traditional entrée, chashashuli, is veal braised to silky gelatinousness in a delicate white wine sauce with tarragon. Kebabs come with mix-and-match sauces tomato, pomegranate, walnut, garlic and tkemali, a tart plum the chef procures from Boston. For a special occasion, you can order a roasted baby piglet for $99 or achma, a party-size multilayered cheese bread, for $40.
Still, it's possible to sample the native foods of the Eastern European Northeast without ever seeing the glare of the disco ball. One easy way is to visit Net Cost Market in the Leo Mall off Bustleton. The display of prepared salads, meats, pastas, smoked fish, caviars and all things dumpling-esque is truly mind-blowing.
There's also Stolovaya, located in the Presidential Plaza on Bustleton, where dining is always a la carte (sans the sequins). This homey eatery is open all day, and it's the kind of place where older men might meet to play dominos and chow down on the three-course $5.99 lunch special. The Uzbek/Russian/Ukrainian fare is earthy and simple. You've got your schnitzel, your stroganoff, your borscht. Among the popular specialties, though, is the meat solyanka, a thick soup of smoked sausages, pickles and olives. A sweet-and-sour tomato-soaked salad of eggplant, carrots and zucchini is a bright and tangy version of caponata, wonderful for smearing on slices of dense sesame-studded bread. A finely shredded cabbage salad is the most delicate coleslaw you'll ever taste. Mini Siberian dumplings are like tortellini stuffed with lamb and melted butter they're also served in chicken broth. Steamed manti are dough packets the size of fists stuffed with crumbly chunks of lamb and caramelized onion and served with a dollop of sour cream. There may be no live music here, but that doesn't mean you can't celebrate.
Emperor, 725 Red Lion Road, 215-677-7675; Golden Gates, 11058 Rennard St., 215-677-9337; Melody, 11729 Bustleton Ave., 215-673-2545; Net Cost Market, 11701 Bustleton Ave., 267-672-2500; Pirosmani, 9309 Krewstown Road, 215-698-1177; Restaurant X.O., 1135 Bustleton Pike, Feasterville, 215-869-1111; Stolovaya, 9808 Bustleton Ave., 215-698-2584.