New Russia Meets Village: Disco, Vodka and Sushi

“Svoboda is not your typical East Village haunt,” reads the press release. “In fact, its name ( svoboda means freedom in Russian) says it all. It means a freedom to be something different from what people have come to expect in East Village eateries.”

I’m not quite sure what I have come to expect in East Village eateries, but a scene out of Brighton Beach would not be it. At Svoboda on a recent evening, however, all we needed was a whirling mirrored disco ball and a bottle of vodka in a block of ice on the table to make us think we were at the National in Brooklyn. Apart from a couple in the corner who were eating their dinner in a gloomy, Dostoyevskian silence, the life of the party (and the only other people in the dining room) was a group of Russians seated at a large round table. They didn’t exactly look the East Village type. Instead of nose rings and Doc Martens, the men, who were beefy and thickset, sported close haircuts and black leather jackets. They talked on cellular phones during dinner as their companions, tall, lanky blondes, held on to their fur coats and tapped their fingers to the old disco hits (such as Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” sounding as if it was being sung in Russian) that blared over the sound system.

As for the décor, the press release was right, it is certainly “different.” You enter through a little vestibule into a long, narrow room with a stone floor, arched ceiling and a large bar. It feels like a cellar in a medieval castle. “It’s how I imagine a Marriott bar might look like in Tirana, Albania,” muttered my husband as we sat down.

Plastic beacons and bas-reliefs of body parts protrude from the walls, which are painted gold and sepia. Polished wooden tables are set with white napkins and salt and pepper shakers made from recycled miniature liquor bottles. Upstairs is a dark cigar lounge (with a humidor, de rigueur in trendy restaurants today) and bar where you can also eat, but from a limited menu.

“A great place to have an affair if you are hiding from the Upper East Side,” said one of my friends, a German who recently returned from Umbria, Italy. (During the recent earthquakes, he claimed, the valleys echoed with the sound of cuckoo clocks falling from the walls.)

When you first look at the menu, which is bound in stainless steel and divided into sections invitingly described as Drink Me, Eat Me, Smoke Me, you began to wonder if something has been lost in the translation. “Shark bites, tempura-battered mako shark nuggets served with fire fries and chipotle tartar sauce: they’re killer [sic]” was one dashing entry. “Screaming oysters” were bluepoints sautéed in olive oil, garlic, sake, oyster sauce and Vietnamese garlic chili paste. We opted instead (rather bravely, I thought) for “Taste of the World,” a hot antipasto platter made up of the chef’s choices for the evening, and the “Freedom Quesadilla,” which was a pretty straightforward combination of chicken, cilantro, fontina and mushrooms.

Meanwhile, our friendly young waiter, who had a thick Russian accent and was from St. Petersburg, brought us a bottle of inexpensive South African red wine he recommended, Kleinbosch 1977. (The wine list is short; vodkas, port and cognacs seem more the thing at Svoboda, but his choice was excellent.)

I liked the chicken wings in the “Taste of the World” platter, but I wasn’t crazy about the waffle fries and various doughy things, including something cheesy on crostini that was rather hard to identify . They probably would go down fine if you were on your third or fourth vodka. A first-course special of the day, maki roll stuffed with eel, avocado, scallions and rice with a soy dipping sauce, was delicious, however, worthy of the best of sushi bars.

“Well, if this is the Russian notion of diversity, it is something else!” said my German friend, looking bemused as he took a bite of maki roll and helped himself to a slice of quesadilla.

The chef, Gregory Samuels, a former sous-chef at the Quilted Giraffe, has said his aim is to present “freestyle food on a three-star level.” Not surprisingly, it is somewhat hit-or-miss. I followed the “Taste of the World” with “Treasures of the World,” which consisted of six kinds of grilled fish and seafood served on spinach and cabbage in a ceramic oyster dish. It was a better choice than the braised lamb shanks in marsala, which were tepid, and a special of bland, mushy Chilean sea bass. The other special of the day, “black-and-blue steak in bourbon sauce,” as the waiter put it, intrigued my husband.

“Bring it as black and blue as the chef can make it,” he said to the waiter. “I like my steak as rare as it gets.”

“This is not black and blue,” said my husband a while later, staring down at the bits of sliced steak the waiter set down in front of him. “This is black and gray.”

The waiter apologized and took the plate back to the kitchen.

“It will be a few minutes,” he said upon his return.

“If it’s a few minutes, the steak will be overcooked again.”

This time, however, it was rare, but did not have much taste. The best dish was the tuna, which was first-rate, a fresh thick piece seared in a crust of sesame seeds and served nicely rare, with grilled baby bok choy.

As we were finishing our main courses, the chef, a tall young man in whites, came out from the kitchen.

“The steak had a sticker for ‘medium’ in it,” he said, looking quite displeased.

For dessert, we opted for the “Svobodlava” (“phyllo volcano with nut-chocolate-honey filling on fire and a burnt sugar ice cream topped with raspberry lava”). It was a sort of baked Alaska, with chocolate droppings inside phyllo dough instead of meringue, and was quite good, as was “Death by Chocolate,” a chocolate crumb ice cream pie with a gooey hot fudge sauce.

All in all, Svoboda wasn’t the greatest restaurant I’ve ever been to, but the food certainly was better than at the National, where my husband and I ate a few years ago. And at least on the way out, he didn’t fall into the trash can and decide to sleep there.

Svoboda*

248 East Fifth Street, at Second Avenue 387-0707

Dress: Leather jackets, fur coats, (11)cellular telephones

Noise level: Fairly loud disco music

Wine list: Short on wines, long on vodka

Credit cards: All major

Price range: Main courses $7.95 to $15.95

Dinner: Daily 5 P.M. to midnight

Cigar lounge: Daily 6:30 P.M. to (11)2 A.M.

* Good

** Very good

*** Excellent

**** Outstanding

No star poor