A restaurant run by a pop singer is usually not destined for great success. Ariana Grinblat, known in Russia as just “Ariana,” hopes to change that.
The self-described “foodie at heart” says that “Russian food in the U.S. has remained stagnant for the last 100 years while cuisine in Russia continues to evolve and transform.” At Ariana Soho, her aim is to “shock your senses, and redefine what you thought you knew about Russian food.”
Born in Houston to Russian parents, Ms. Grinblat divided her childhood between the U.S. and Russia (she speaks English without an accent). I know nothing about Russian R&B, but Ms. Grinblat is obviously successful, winning “6 Russian Grammys” (the first of them while she was still in high school), “3 Song of the Year Awards, an MTV Europe Music Award Nomination for Best Russian Act, and a platinum debut album selling over 500,000 units.”
This is not one of those celebrity restaurants where the nominal owner appears for a photo-op, and is never seen again. Nearly three months after opening, on a rainy weeknight in late April, with no more than 10 customers present, Ms. Grinblatt was there all evening, dressed rather more chastely than in the photo.
She and her husband/co-owner, Lev Schnur, have their work cut out for them. The 2,000-square-foot space is divided into four rooms, three of which were totally empty when we visited, and even in the fourth there was not much energy. No professional critic has reviewed it. Where are the throngs of Russian ex-pats that have filled Mari Vanna since it opened?
There clearly is potential here. The serene back dining room with a spectacular skylight, contemporary art work, and generously-spaced seating with white tablecloths, lacks only for customers. A curtained grotto at the back of the restaurant, with a gas fireplace, could be one of the city’s most romantic tables, if only people knew about it.
In the front room, there is a long marble bar serving a wide range of aged and infused vodkas with house-made bitters. There’s an insane caviar martini for $56, but the rest of the inventive cocktails are fairly priced at $12–16. Here, you can order vodka without embarrassment. Order one, and at no extra charge you’ll get a selection of pickled vegetables (below left), but they really ought to transfer your bar tab to the table.
The chef is St. Petersburg native Vitalii Kovalev, but the press materials describe the cuisine as a collaboration between him and Ariana. The menu is presented in a laminated plastic sleeve, which makes it feel cheap, but the food is not terribly expensive by today’s standards: we were out for $132 before tip (that doesn’t count the cocktails, of course). Starters, or what they call “Small Plates,” are $13–18, Mains (“Large Plates”) $18–34, desserts $12.
The wine list fits one page; it feels like a starter set, without much personality, but I like finding affordable wines at a place like this, and a Château de la Négly ($50; above right) was perfectly suitable.
A runner brings out a basket with four kinds of bread (above right). This is a great way to start. There is a soft spread that was described as “pumpkin butter,” but the color was more green than orange; anyhow, it was terrific.
The kitchen sent out a very respectable Harvest Salad ($11; above left). Rich Borscht ($16; above right) was poured table-side, and presented with a helping of house-made crème fraîche (not shown). It was marred by two thin slices of reedy braised short rib (in the center of the bowl, barely visible), which tasted like leftover brisket.
Among the entrées, there are two kinds of Pelmeni (Russian dumplings), and both are excellent: the Sturgeon Pelmeni ($23; above left) with squid ink and saffron velouté, and the Duck Pelmeni ($21; above right) with a truffle cream sauce.
There is unfortunately another Ariana restaurant in New York, and when you google it, that one comes up first. “Our” Ariana brands itself “Ariana Soho” and claims to be in the heart of that neighborhood. Actually, as it’s on the north side of Houston, it’s not in Soho at all, much less its heart.
Ariana and her husband have the bones of a good restaurant here. Now they just need the customers.
Ariana (140 W. Houston St. between Sullivan & Macdougal Streets, “Soho”)
Food: Modern Russian cuisine
Service: Friendly and attentive
Ambiance: Four elegant rooms and a marble bar, waiting for customers