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You can dine like a czar

Times Staff Writer

PEERING over mile-high sandwiches at Art’s Deli in Studio City, regulars have been eyeing the progress of the building across the street for months. What might a structure with two prominent onion domes turn out to be?

Mystery solved. The preposterous-looking building has been unveiled as Romanov, the latest steakhouse concept to hit the Valley, and this one -- from the folks who gave us Republic on North La Cienega Boulevard -- is Russian.

Shhh, though. Romanov is indulging in what’s known as a “soft opening,” which means it’s not broadcasting the fact that the place is finally open after months of delays. Though the kitchen staff is standing by to cook the entire elaborate menu, the weekend entertainment (Russian gypsy dancers) doesn’t arrive until June. In the meantime, you’ll have to make do with live piano music -- an East-meets-West repertoire of Russian romantic plus Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett standards.

Romanov is much classier than the exterior would lead you to expect. In fact, it’s drop-dead gorgeous, beginning with the enormous crystal and mosaic chandelier in the center of a room big enough to house a hot-air balloon. The chandelier is the work of Armenian artist Levon Karsyan, whose large work normally graces public buildings in Russia. Glowing lights in the shape of Faberge eggs also hang from the ceiling. On either side of the bar are two private dining alcoves dressed in crushed red velvet and satin, each with its own stunning chandelier.

Oh, the Russian contingent is going to love this place. Where else in L.A. could you get dolled up in your furs and pearls and not look out of place? Bring it on. Bring it all on. The ballroom-sized dining room ringed with posh booths seems designed for showing it off. And the waiters do their part, dressed in their Cossack-influenced uniforms. If you prefer a more intime soiree, check out the library dining room with its ornately carved fireplace and 24-karat gold-leaf ceiling. The half-empty bookshelves are meant to be furnished with a library of Russian classics; until then, bring along your own copy of “A Hero of Our Time.” Might come in handy if the kitchen falls behind.

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The menu, conceived by Republic’s executive chef Gabriel Morales and executed by Mark Murillo, most recently chef at Saddle Peak Lodge, welds Russian haute cuisine with the traditional steakhouse. Caesar salad is translated as Czar salad. Borscht is made with golden beets and while the presentation is formal and elegant, the taste is disappointingly watery. Dainty potato blini, topped with smoked salmon and creme fraiche, are better, but cold. Quail Kiev comes in a cherry reduction that my friend who has lived in Russia assures me is very traditional. If you prefer to keep it local, Romanov allows for that with spinach salad or tiger shrimp salad with blood oranges and asparagus.

The night I was there, the execution was still wobbly. You can chalk up the undercooked, gluey pelmeni dough to opening-week jitters. But there’s no excusing bad-quality ingredients across the board -- including subpar steak and smoked fish. At these prices, quality should be a given.

Caviar service is market price, which can’t be anything other than high. Clearly, Romanov’s owner is expecting big spenders. The affable young manager can’t wait to show off three eggs encrusted with gold kept behind the bar. They’re large enough to conceivably hatch a baby brontosaurus. Inside is a cut crystal carafe of high-end vodka with wee glasses hanging from its neck. Want to sample? Buy the whole thing for $2,800 and you get to keep the egg and its contents.

Bottom line: If you can get past the food and enjoy the ambience and the novelty of dining in such an opulent room in an unexpected setting, Romanov might be fun. Have one of the high-end Russian vodkas, such as Putinka Crystal ($28 a glass), or a pink Red Square martini made with vodka, triple sec, lime and pomegranate juice. Then sit back and enjoy the show.

virbila@latimes.com

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Romanov Restaurant & Lounge

Where: Romanov, 12229 Ventura Blvd., Studio City

When: Open Sunday through Wednesday from 5:30 p.m. to midnight, Thursday through Saturday from 5:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. Full bar. Valet parking.

Cost: Starters, $9 to $18; main courses, $24 to $41; desserts, $7 to $11.

Info: (818) 760-3177; www.romanovla.com.


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