- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 22, 2001

A pity that Russian President Vladimir Putin didn't make time on his schedule when visiting Washington last week to have dinner at Maxim, which bills itself as a "Grand Russian Restaurant."
Instead of dining with New World capitalists and politicians, as he did at the Palm, he could have experienced a bit of time travel in the sedate precincts of this credible bastion of Russian-Georgian and American cuisine on F Street near the White House.
Owner and host Alexandra Costa might have treated him to a fine banquet in the small and exclusive side room, with its separate entrance and appointments that include the blue-and-white-patterned royal china from St. Petersburg. (The room is available for rent for $200 an evening.)
On the wall in the restaurant's foyer as Mr. Putin would have entered, he could have read undated newspaper articles about the colorful history of Mrs. Costa, the wife of a Soviet diplomat when she defected from the Soviet Embassy here in 1978.
A handsome woman who has a master's degree from the Wharton School of Business and is founder/owner of the Russian Gourmet specialty grocery in McLean, she would have greeted him smiling and invited the former KGB official for a libation in the wood-paneled bar to the right, its horseshoe shape just right for enticing spy hunters and intelligence-gathering folk. Vodka choices are vast, as might be expected.
Mr. Putin would have felt right at home in the dining room proper, surveying a menu with a description of Russian dishes given in English.
Ah, glasnost. Perestroika. Remember when such words were novelties in this country. Now we take for granted the near-total integration of former dissidents, born-again apparatchiks, and diplomats from so-called breakaway republics feasting together only one block from the White House. Such is the deliciously poignant atmosphere inside this large 160-seat dining emporium with its chandeliers, low lighting and widely spaced tables that make eavesdropping out of the question.
It's a family-run affair, with Ms. Costa's husband, son and daughter all involved. She obviously hopes the restaurant will become something of a gathering spot for the Russian-American community, a place to pick up copies of the Russia Journal, that says it is published simultaneously in Moscow and Washington. A chef is due any minute from St. Petersburg.
Thursday, Friday and Saturday, the parquet dance floor in front of the small orchestra stand sees quite a bit of action; plans eventually call for concerts of chamber music, plus the possibility of cultural and political programs arranged in conjunction with the nearby Corcoran Gallery of Art. Mrs. Costa's husband, a singer by profession, is often on hand to soothe expatriate souls with familiar themes from the Russian folk and popular repertoire.
The name "Maxim" was adopted as a sentimental reminder of good times once enjoyed by worldly Russians at the famous Paris restaurant, many of them nobility on the run from the revolution. Another poignant note: Maxim is the site of the former Maison Blanche, a popular spot for Washington's political cogniscenti not so long ago. The name may also stand for an ambitious menu whose array of hot and cold appetizers is particularly impressive, a selection of which can make a satisfying meal on their own.
The blinis and blintzes are here in all their glory with salmon caviar. The fabled ossetra and beluga versions are offered at "market price." Opt instead among cold offerings such as marinated mushrooms, an eggplant dip, chicken in walnut sauce made with spices and garlic (called "satsivi"), Georgian eggplant with ground walnuts, or a small portion of Russian-style potato salad called "salad 'Olivier'" on the menu.
Another advantage of going with cold appetizers is the fact their price is the same for lunch or dinner unlike at least one of the featured hot appetizers, the Siberian pelmeni, classic Russian beef and pork dumplings that cost $9.95 for 12 pieces at lunch and $12.95 at dinner. These are filling enough to be a meal on their own, especially if you dive heavily into the accompanying sour cream, but they taste fairly bland after a round of wonderfully crisp fried calamari, one of the evening's specials.
The three soups are most emphatically ethnic: a Russian fish soup called "ukha"; a beef, tomato and rice soup from Georgia called "kharcho"; and the ubiquitous Russian beet soup known everywhere as "borscht." Our company found the borscht disappointing, perhaps expecting a more robust and flavorful concoction.
Nor were any of the desserts considered above the mark, being a common variety offering of pastries, fruit, ice cream and cheesecake. That isn't surprising for someone who has tackled the appetizers as well as an entree. The house-made grapefruit pineapple sorbet, however, proved to be a much-needed refresher and just the right touch after a meal rich in cream, butter and sauces. Even the shashlik-a beef kebab of no particular distinction arrived with a small dish of exotic barbecue sauce made with a sour plum base.
The kebab was the least interesting of the many entrees sampled, all of them served with vegetables or potatoes. The lunch menu offers both a lamb and a beef kebab for nearly half the price of the evening version. The present list of choices is somewhat predictable but management promises to delve deeply into cuisines of republics other than Russia and Georgia.
The beef stroganoff is a delightfully indulgent mix of beef, onions, mushrooms and sour cream surrounded by a ring of succulent mashed potatoes. A crusty chicken Kiev oozes butter that miraculously doesn't spurt onto a diner's chest when the crust is pierced. A less familiar chicken dish is the chicken tapaka, described as Georgian-style Cornish hen pounded flat, rubbed with garlic and sauteed.
Sturgeon was a winner, both in its broiled and baked versions, a welcome change from salmon fillet. A printed sample menu doesn't list sturgeon so be sure to ask if it is available.
Two lunch-only items include a sauteed trout with a pepper and garlic coulis and stuffed cabbage.
The wine list is extensive and, naturally, includes labels from Georgia, a noted wine-producing region, so don't miss the opportunity of trying some. Wines by the glass average $7 each.
RESTAURANT: Maxim, 1725 F St. NW; 202/962-0280
HOURS: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Friday; dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday and until 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday
COST: Cold appetizers $4.95 to $12.95; hot appetizers $1.50 to $19.95; soups $3.95 and $4.95; entrees $9.95 to $15.95 at lunch and $16.95 to $31.95 at dinner; desserts $4.50 to $5.50; coffee $1.95
CREDIT CARDS: All credit cards
PARKING: Valet parking at night
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: yes ____________________________________

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