Dinner parties succeed by various strategies. Some hosts ply you with drink; some pack your plate with delicacies; some impress with the sheer flattening power of their expense accounts. Where few parties succeed is in hitting that rare target: transporting you fully to another, charmed place.
Perched high over the icy cobblestones of Crosby Street in downtown Manhattan, Savoy already feels aloft from the everyday world. Last Friday night, a bevy of Russians packed the restaurant's cozy upper floor for an unusually creative event: a dinner inspired by famous dishes in Russian literature, chiefly from the writing of Nikolai Gogol.
The idea sprang from the inventive mind of Elena Siyanko, executive producer of SNOB, a Russian-language magazine and social community for global Russians with outposts in Moscow, London and New York. Siyanko posed the idea to Peter Hoffman, Savoy chef and co-owner, and Darra Goldstein, Williams College professor of Russian and founding editor of Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, who immediately agreed to dig in and make it happen.
"We've created meals with a literary theme before," says chef Peter Hoffman. "We once had a meal of autumnal foods mentioned in Galway Kinnell's poetry, another based on Charles Simic's works. Probably our most unusual literary menu was based on Louise Erdrich's novel The Master Butcher's Singing Club. The food in that story reflects the author's mixed heritage and two very different cuisines, Native American and German. That was a lot of fun."
"Feasting and Fasting with Gogol" presented a different gustatory challenge. Gogol's writings are stuffed to the gills with good eating and drinking, a favored activity for the writer too - when he wasn't wracked with indigestion, diarrhea or worse. After decades of suffering from the after-effects of extraordinary meals, Gogol embarked on a self-imposed "holy anorexia" as a form of spiritual repentance - an extreme Lenten fast that ultimately killed him. So tonight's dinner started with an intriguing two-fold question: how can you feast like a Russian landowner without devolving into beastliness (as many of Gogol's mean-spirited characters do)? And how deeply can one meal resonate: as time-travel, as flight of imaginative fancy, and as shared food tying together the new Russia with its older incarnations, "global Russians" with their old nemesis America?
The night started with blini with American sturgeon caviar, meltingly succulent pig's tongues with Georgian walnut sauce, and champagne flutes, all passed around with a conversational buzz: the Russians are coming! When they arrived, they made a remarkably smart lot, a far cry from Brighton Beach: well-educated, thoroughly traveled, eager to spread a new idea abroad about their fast-evolving country. An international club of literally card-carrying "global Russians", SNOB now boasts a magazine circulation of 20,000 and launched its premium member program with the Gogol event: for $1,000 annually, SNOB premium members can tap into the SNOB network, a multitude of cultural events, and (eventually, it's hoped) their own physical clubhouses as they restlessly travel the globe. "The name SNOB? Well, it's a bit of a red flag to the correador bull," laughs Katherina Makarova, premium program director for SNOB. A trim Muscovite with asymmetrically cut dark hair, Makarova acknowledges the name is hardly inclusive - yet the SNOB atmosphere was remarkably friendly, literate and moneyed yet a bit rowdy, a promising tone for a good party in whatever language. Makarova was joined by a languid red-head: Ksenia Semenova, SNOB's New York editor, and the affable Grisha Kegeles, director of business development. In another corner, Vitaliy Komar (half of the iconic Russian-art duo Komar and Melamid) fended off compliments for his round cherry-red glasses. Fluttering his fingers in front of the lenses, he remarked, "I designed these myself and put a lot of fuss into getting the proportions right between the nose bridge and the earpieces. It's kind of a Golden Section."
After an intro in Russian and a hearty toast "Za Vas!" ("To you!"), waiters spread to the tables with frosted pitchers of three different vodkas, infused with caraway, Seville orange and cherry pits. As Goldstein read a witty talk outlining Gogol's love-hate relationship with his bowels and his muse, waiters handed around plates of smoked sardines, house-cured meats, juice-heavy beets with gingered pears, cabbage pirozhki and a delicate fish aspic with monkfish liver. "The carnal and erotic aren't much addressed in Gogol's works," Goldstein remarked. "But all that passion is there - it's just sublimated into the characters eating food." Diners ate and drank while Goldstein shared anecdotes about Gogol's fanatically precise method of preparing macaroni, his predilection for eating whole pots of jam at a single sitting, and his vocal digestive complaints to correspondents.
After appetizers, the next course was sturgeon kulibiaka, a tender cut of white fish nestled in a flaky crust with a leek, millet and potato caper sauce, washed down with golden German mead. Gogol describes kulibiaka in his novel Dead Souls:
"And bake us a four-cornered fish pie," he said, sucking the air through his teeth and inhaling deeply. "In one corner I want you to put the sturgeon cheeks and the gristle cooked soft, in another throw in some buckwheat, and then some mushrooms and onions, and some sweet milt, and the brains, and whatever else, you know the sort of thing. And make sure that on the one side it's - you know -a nice golden brown, but not so much on the other side. And the pastry - make sure it's baked through, till it just crumbles away, so that the juices soak right through, do you see, so that you don't even feel it in your mouth - so it just melts like snow." As he said all this, Petukh kept smacking and sucking his lips.
Gogol remarked himself later, with some satisfaction, that this description "would make a dead man's mouth water". Hoffman's rendition of the dish lived up to its literary legend.
As the main entrée - braised rabbit with wild mushrooms and smetane (sour-cream) sauce - was served, diners loosened up a bit. Cruising around the room, amid the prevailing Russian one could catch snatches of English: about the marvelous taste and nutritional qualities of plankton; about how Indian and Russian expats alike bond with fellow travelers as their own countries change with lightning speed; about art collecting, the Viennese Opera Ball that night (where many guests planned to go for the night's second-shift); SNOB member Nic Iljine's recent donation of cartloads of vintage art books from his Frankfurt home to the Moscow Library. Every table featured at least one well-heeled guest, madly thumbing his BlackBerry or iPhone, with one guest juggling both devices at once. ("I'm newly single," Max, the Warhol art collector seated across from me, remarked, his glasses shoved up to his forehead as he sipped vodka and texted. "I have to keep tabs on this, ah, developing situation.") Clearly globe-trotting Russians are champion texters.
Over a dessert called gogol-mogol (roasted apples, dried pears, candied ginger and lady fingers), guests shifted seats. With a head full of Gogol - laid out to die on his dining-room table, his chilled legs warmed in his dying hours with hot bread - a stomach full of Savoy's best work, and eyes and ears full of a wholly strange subculture, the Russian Here and Abroad, it was thrillingly easy to lose track of the time. Alex Neratoff, a New York architect of Russian descent (and Savoy's neighbor in a Prince Street loft for the last thirty years) described the feeling perfectly, if accidentally. In remembering a now-defunct Russian ball, he recalled: "It was just one of those events you're always hoping for. You felt outside of time and place, like you didn't know when or where you were - and didn't care." My thoughts exactly.
Jude Stewart is a contributing editor at PRINT and writes about design and culture for Slate, Fast Company, and The Believer among others. Her book on color and culture will be published by Bloomsbury USA in fall 2012. She also tweets about color at twitter.com/joodstew.