Hours: Tue.-Wed. 6-10 p.m.; Thu. 6-11 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 7 p.m.-1 a.m.; Sun. 5 p.m.-midnight.
Prices: Appetizers $3.50-8; main courses $4-27
Fare: Russian, Ukrainian, Eastern European
Atmosphere: Hotel ballroom
As professional (ahem) eater-outers, we've lucked upon a surprising number of dining gems in out-of-the-way places. But what's even more refreshing is finding a good meal hiding in plain sight. That is exactly what happened to us recently in Squirrel Hill, of all places, where we thought we knew the epicurean landscape by heart. If Angelique's hairdresser hadn't tipped her off to Restaurant Alexander, the new Russian place just up from the Squirrel Hill Theater on Forward, we might never have known about it.
It just goes to show that we are more plugged in to our hairdryers than to the local Russian community, which apparently packs Alexander on weekend nights, filling the dance floor that dominates one end of the long, windowless space. Apricot-colored walls, a swirly floral carpet and crystal chandeliers compensate for the lack of natural light by adding visual warmth and sparkle, if also the ambience of a conventioneers' banquet.
Let it be known that we would gladly don badges for any convention that serves this kind of food. (Hello! Our name is Gluttony!) Printed in Russian as well as in English, Alexander's menu is a testament to its base of native Russian and Ukrainian customers. We suspect the Russian version is more descriptive; the English one tends to generic phrases, such as pork with white sauce, in place of names evoking the specific ingredients and preparations of Russian cuisine. Our server, heavily accented but friendly and fluent, was key in helping us navigate the straits between our appetites and Alexander's varied offerings. We began with a couple of the dishes most familiar to us, including a small platter of wine-cured herring served on cucumber planks and topped with plenty of tart, vinegary onions. The fish was tender but meaty, its saline flavor well balanced with the cucumbers' freshness, the vinegar's tanginess and the onions' sharp bite. Atop a slice of dense, hearty black bread, the combination was even better.
We love a good borscht, and Alexander qualifies. Thick with shredded beets and chunks of beef, its broth served up a pleasing balance of savory and sweet. Mixed with the obligatory dollop of sour cream, it took on a rosy richness that Warhol's favorite soup could only dream of.
Alexander's list of main courses ranges dramatically in price, from $5 pierogies to lamb at $27, with most items, including those we ordered, in the moderate range. Jason had the aforementioned pork in white sauce, a large cutlet covered in mushrooms duxelles and a thick sauce reminiscent of both Hollandaise and cottage cheese, the whole broiled under a blanket of mild Lithuanian cheese. While the pork could have been more tender, the mix of rich flavors was luxurious.
Vareniky are the Ukrainian version of that local favorite, pierogies. Alexander's are smallish, deep-fried, and filled with a starchy-sweet mixture of potatoes and carmelized onions that made the sour cream topping a mere gilding of the lily.
Angelique was intrigued by the seemingly unusual combination of tilapia baked with apples, sour cream and cheese. The firm, flaky fish arrived covered in a layer of grated apples; these had been cooked till their texture blended in with the tilapia's, broadening the dish's flavor without calling attention to their own. On top were a thick molten floe of the same Lithuanian cheese and a sprinkling of fresh dill, providing a sharp herbal counterpoint to the dish's predominant creamy flavors.
Russian-style pancakes were offered with a variety of fillings: beef, caviar, mushrooms, cheese and banana. We selected the last, yet were mildly surprised when it arrived with all of the trappings of dessert. The pancake was rolled around the sliced fruit, fried, then topped with chocolate and strawberry sauces and crispy crushed waffle for a sweet symphony of appealing flavors and textures.
Alexander is a restaurant catering to immigrants that deserves a wider audience. Serving Russian cuisine for all palates, from cautious to experienced, Alexander uses fine ingredients and careful preparations to bring gastronomical glasnost to Forward Avenue.
Jason: 3 stars
Angelique: 3 stars