Carla Meyer

Dining review: Firebird's memorable Russian fare needs more customers

Firebird's website suggested plenty. The atmosphere would be "elegant," the food "delectable." What's more, there would be an ambiance we were sure to find "intriguing."

What could that possibly mean? Live music? Dancing? A festive spirit emanating throughout? Would there be somebody swallowing swords?

Lost in translation at this Russian restaurant was what we actually encountered during our visits for dinner – the sound of our own voices pinging off the walls with no other humans in sight, save for the waiter. Intriguing? More like baffling. Elegant? Not so much.

What were we to make of such a vast room with so many empty chairs and vacant tables? Could the cooking really be this bad? Or was this place, tucked into an anonymous Carmichael strip mall, woefully overlooked? Would "delectable" actually be part of the experience when "elegant" went missing and "intriguing" was more like a riddle?

One taste of the borscht, a mainstay of Russian cuisine, would reveal plenty. Would it be bitter and jarring and out of whack like the worst versions going? Or would there be a harmony, a depth and a nuance to this deep-red beet soup?

I tasted and waited for the soup to coat my palate. And there was my answer – a deep, savory note with a bit of sweetness on the finish, a medley of flavors that shows so well in any good soup. The beets, the cabbage, the broth, the dollop of sour cream all worked together with no rough edges or sour notes.

It was actually excellent hot borscht, and perhaps a suggestion of things to come. It was hearty, enduring and, yes, this soup had certain elegance about it.

And whoever was back there in the kitchen could only create a soup this vivid by starting with fresh ingredients, then tasting and tweaking and adjusting the seasonings along the way.

That was the first test. But hey, a great soup made with beets and cabbage is not exactly going to lure in the masses in a Sacramento suburb, even if we have approximately 200,000 Russian immigrants throughout the region.

As my colleague Allen Pierleoni noted in his lunch-oriented Counter Culture review in 2010, not long after Firebird opened, the restaurant's varied lunch buffet was first-rate – and he brought along Sacramento's pre-eminent foodsmith and gentleman grocer, Darrell Corti, to proclaim it as honest-to-goodness Russian cooking done right.

But would the dinners, ordered from all corners of a broad and seemingly challenging array of offerings, hold up to those standards?

After the borscht, we moved on to the trio of smoked fish, a $10.99 appetizer meant for sharing. The salmon was above average, a firm and mild version with a clean finish. But the smoked sturgeon, rich and meaty, was very good. And best of all was the smoked eel – yes, eel – thin strips smoked and then glazed. It was tender, toothsome and sweet like marmalade.

The meals continued along this path with no distractions or missteps. Every dish – every blini, every serving of seafood, every hearty meat dish – was executed with sure-handed precision.

The only thing incongruent was the absence of fanfare for a restaurant with such sizable portions, fair prices and a sincere, quality-drive expression of traditional Russian cuisine.

Firebird is the brainchild of Svetlana Kumansky, who decided to open the restaurant in 2010, 20 years after she landed in the United States to begin a new life.

She went on to earn a law degree and says her primary occupation these days is working in Social Security law. The restaurant is her way to celebrate her Russian heritage and love of the varied cuisine with others.

She says many of Firebird's regulars are not necessarily Russian, as the food here is easy to enjoy no matter where you're from.

Some of it, however, might suggest a touch of the exotic – like the $7.99 salmon "caviar," a working-class take, perhaps, on the more luxurious and exquisite sturgeon caviars at 10 times the price. Served with slices of hard-boiled eggs, the salmon roe tasted like a salty breeze sweeping across the Baltic Sea.

The menu here can be mesmerizing. Scanning the pages, we had to wonder how all this could be handled so surely in a restaurant that wasn't exactly bustling. Escargot in garlic and parsley butter. Boiled beef tongue served with horseradish and a garlic cream sauce. As the menu editorialized, much to our amusement, this is "not a date dish!"

While those might be dishes best left to the adventurous eater, we found plenty of easy entry points for the casual and the curious diner. The beet salad, tossed in a mix of mayonnaise, garlic and horseradish, then topped with walnuts, continued the theme of balance and flavor – a bit sweet, a touch bitter, leading to something simple and satisfying. The blinis, too, are easy to like. The blini with smoked salmon – crepes rolled around the fish – gave the smokiness a sweet counterpoint. The blini with red caviar likewise offered an accompanying sweetness to soften or counterbalance the flavor notes of the salt and the sea.

The salmon covered in a white cream sauce and topped with salmon roe was another accessible dish – robust and hearty without being overwhelming.

As our dinners progressed, we weren't entirely alone. There were eventually a handful of diners, all seemingly serious about the food and overlooking the absence of energy throughout the room. I could only imagine eating such food when the room is full, with all the foreign and exotic sounds in a restaurant that deserves to feel more like a celebration.

Even more eye-catching and delicious was what the menu described simply as beef stew in a clay pot, misleading only in that it was way more impressive once we saw it, resplendent in a soufflé-like pastry, sturdy and beautifully elevated above the rim of the pot. The pastry, once it cooled, was actually crisp like crackers, and we broke off pieces to dip into the deeply flavored beef stew within the pot.

Then there was beef stroganoff, featuring wide-ribbon noodles that were well handled in the kitchen, neither too firm or too limp and topped with a mild sour cream sauce. Another Russian classic, chicken Kiev, was cooked with skill, with the chicken pounded thin and fried to a golden brown. Pierce the chicken with a knife and witness the stream of butter ooze out onto the plate.

Accompanied by polenta (one of several side dish options), this was another near-perfect demonstration of casual, hearty Russian cooking.

Russian cuisine, alas, is not necessarily a perfect fit in Sacramento. The absence of seasonality on the menu, for instance, sometimes feels off kilter.

The heartiest of dishes – the stews, the meats with rich sauces – might go over better on a cold, rainy night in February than a searing evening in August.

Nevertheless, the Firebird and its wide-ranging, skillfully executed menu never failed to offer a memorable food experience – even if our oohs and ahhs were at times the only sounds in the entire restaurant.

Firebird Russian Restaurant

4715 Manzanita Ave., Carmichael

(916) 485-7747

Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Sunday

Beverage options: Full bar, small selection of Russian and Ukrainian beers, limited wine choices. Don't expect the bartender to handle a full repertoire of mixed drinks. Our request for a classic Old Fashioned was met with a shrug and an apology.

Vegetarian friendly: Yes

Noise level: Too quiet

Overall: Three stars (out of four stars)

With a richly varied menu that showcases Russian cuisine and the talent and precision in the kitchen to execute the dishes, the food is the star here. A more lively dining room – and many more people infusing it with energy – will make it the entertaining dining experience it deserves to be.

Food: Three 1/2 stars

Caviar, blinis, dumplings, smoked fish, hearty meat dishes – the menu just keeps on going. We were impressed with the consistency of the cooking and the pleasing balance of flavors throughout many dishes, from the borscht to a beef stew cooked in a clay pot. Though some selections are for the truly adventurous, this is an accessible menu for many.

Service: Two stars

In this oversized dining room, we only ever saw one waiter. He was also the host, the bartender, the busboy and presumably the bouncer and chief bottle washer. He gave us good recommendations from the menu, but that was the extent of it.

Ambiance: One 1/2 stars Give this room energy and everything about the experience here elevates. Picture a big, empty room with good food. It would be more fun if more people were having fun here.

Call The Bee's Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.