"Where are the Russian dishes?" asks my companion as we scan the menu at Rasputin.
The restaurant is named for the mysterious monk who influenced Czar Nicholas II and his family prior to the October revolution, so the expectation of Russian food seems natural enough. But the thing is, I reply, Rasputin is not a Russian restaurant.
Well OK, potato vareniki, eggplant tart and something called "bistroganoff" are on this menu, but the interpretations have unique spins. The vareniki, for instance, Ukrainian dumplings stuffed with mashed potatoes, come blanketed in a rich shallot cream sauce. Eggplant tart turns up inside a flaky French pastry.
The restaurant bills itself as the place for "California cuisine with a Russian accent." In this dining room that can mean anything from foie gras, risotto, and the ubiquitous Chilean sea bass to a broad range of pastas, vegetarian fare and grilled meats.
Mother Russia is present more in spirit than substance. The Russian language is sometimes spoken by staff members, a few of whom speak English in identifiably Russian accents. Occasionally, it is heard in the dining room as well. Owners Vladimir Heifets and Roman Shishalovsky also have the popular Uzbekistan restaurant in Los Angeles, and a few friends, Russians and countrymen apparently have followed them to their new digs.
The spacious, high-ceilinged room is enlivened by two colorful surrealist murals, both of which portray Harlequin dancers and the former Red Square's famous St. Basil's Cathedral. Tables have been hand-painted with different Russian themes, all from the hand of Russian Georgian artist Gia Chikvaidze. The artwork is so impressive, the restaurant should consider charging admission.
Take a seat on the luxuriant burgundy banquette deftly embroidered with an imperial gold brocade, and relax. Soon you are plied with a basket full of terrific homemade breads, including thick slices of Russian rye and a yeasty, pull-apart jalapen~o cheese bread.
Rasputin is one of the few Valley restaurants with its own bakery on the premises. That explains why breads here are so fresh. (The waiters sometimes hand out wrapped breads as gifts, too, at the end of a meal.)
If you're in the mood, try the bracing house cocktail called the Rasputin, a pink elixir served straight up in a frosty martini glass. The waiter will pour you one from the spigot of an enormous Finlandia vodka jar, kept filled to the brim with fruit and pure vodka.
Sauteed foie gras with caramelized apples and Calvados vinaigrette is the menu's priciest appetizer, but it is also its best. The foie gras is crisp, rich and soft, perfectly matched to the sweet and tart fruit.
A second appetizer, cured salmon trumpets, is more like a gravad lax. The fish comes rolled into three horn shapes, arranged atop a stack of three slightly soggy potato pancakes streaked with a lemon-dill sauce.
I like the chewy vareniki and their tender fillings, but I would like them better in their original form, without the overly rich cream sauce. Eggplant tart is flaky pastry topped with heavily layered sauteed strips of eggplant, grilled vegetables and porcini.
A peasanty potage of carrots, cauliflower, turnips and possibly that rarely used root vegetable rutabaga is dubbed garden vegetable soup. And there is borscht, too, a light version of the beet soup, nicely permeated with the essence of beef.
The best of a small pasta selection is wild mushroom risotto, a creamy casserole of Italian arborio rice, lots of cheese and grilled Portobello mushrooms.
One oddball salad is a true mishegos: duck ravioli, oyster mushrooms, caramelized apples, plums, pecans and field greens tossed in a raspberry dressing.
If that dish sounds a bit over the top, so do a few entrees. Chilean sea bass with eggplant caviar is sandwiched between pureed eggplant and lemon couscous, a conceit which obscures the taste of the delicate fish.
Bistroganoff is a cute play on words (bistro, get it?), but this chunky beef, sour cream, mushroom and onion casserole is swooningly rich on its own and would be better without the oily fried potato basket in which it is presented.
Farm-raised sturgeon, set on a bed of sauteed spinach and swathed in pomegranate sauce, lacks this fish's normally distinctive character. Instead, the dish is dominated by the powerfully fruity sauce.
Count on the juicy roasted pork loin, though, a sweet, Scandinavian inspired recipe with apple-pear compote and homey mashed potatoes, and the hearty braised lamb shank with mashed potatoes and pureed winter vegetables.
Dessert includes mixed berries in "sweet Champagne" soup and a dense, creamy chocolate torte. There is also the ever-present tiramisu, as commonplace in Valley restaurants as mushrooms after a spring rain in Novosibirsk.
* WHAT: Rasputin.
* WHERE: 13615 Ventura Blvd. in Sherman Oaks.
* WHEN: 11:30 a.m.-midnight daily.
* HOW MUCH: Russian potato vareniki, $6.50; sauteed foie gras, $14.50; Russian borscht, $3.50; roasted pork loin, $13.95. Dinner for two, $26-$49.
* FYI: Valet and street parking. Full bar. All major cards.
* CALL: (818) 907-6336.