Can 31-Year-Old Chef Save The Russian Tea Room?

“After interviewing many chefs in the city, I came to the conclusion that Marc was ready, willing and able, and I thought he was up for the challenge of the job,” said owner Mr. Lieblich. “He’s doing very well.”

“It’s a huge enterprise,” Mr. Taxiera said of the vastly larger Russian Tea Room. “This place is like four Beppes put together.” He compared the transition to attempting to “jump on a treadmill doing 50 miles per hour.”

Mr. Taxiera has instituted some of his own touches to the menu, including a pumpkin seed-crusted, roasted boar loin, which tasted somewhat sweeter and smokier than the everyday pork tenderloin.

But the new guy isn’t under some grand delusion that the Russian Tea Room is strictly about the cuisine.

“People do come here for the food—it is a restaurant, after all,” he said. “But they’re coming here because it is what it is, you know? They come for the experience. It’s my job to kind of turn that around and have people say, ‘Listen, I wanna go there because it’s the best Kiev I’ve ever had.’ Or, because we have caviar you can’t get anywhere else.”

Given the prevailing word-of-mouth gap, Mr. Taxiera will have his work cut out for him.

On Saturday night, The Observer easily secured a table for two at 8:30 via the Internet with barely a few hours notice. Upon arriving, business was apparently so slow that the hostess didn’t even bother to check the name off the list, as evidenced by a no-show e-mail, which arrived the next day.

We were seated on the largely empty second floor in a booth nearest the famous tree of Fabergé-inspired Venetian glass eggs installed during the LeRoy era. The server and sommelier seemed attentive enough, the entrees cooked to order and tasty enough, but the vibe? Crickets.

“It was a quiet night,” said Ken Biberaj, the restaurant’s publicist.

Mr. Taxiera added, however, that the restaurant still served more than 450 patrons over the course of the day. “We are busy—don’t get me wrong,” he said.

Still, even the owner admitted that getting more butts in the booths remains priority No. 1.

“The biggest challenge has been to let the people of New York know that we’re open,” said Mr. Lieblich, whose efforts at raising awareness have included slapping a big red Russian Tea Room banner on the side of a Dunkin’ Donuts on First Avenue. It might seem an odd placement, were it not for the fact that Mr. Lieblich owns that building, too.

Spreading the word “is and has been and still will be, going into 2008, the biggest challenge,” Mr. Lieblich said. “Not even all of the people within 15 blocks know we’re open.” But, he added, “we’re here to stay.”