The 20-something guys nonchalantly crowded around the bar were there for the vodka. Hammer & Sickle has 70 varieties on the menu, and the bottles lined up on the mirrored shelves behind the bar were going to keep them busy all night.
But sitting around a few tables pushed together convivially in the corner, there were eight middle-aged Russians who were clearly there for the food. As they arrived and got settled in, they were anything but nonchalant. Men helped women out of coats and pulled out chairs; women smiled those bright, full-eyed smiles that said, “This is going to be a great evening.” They looked around. They cooed. “Chic.”
And I was keeping a close eye on them. Because I knew that if they left after anything resembling an ordinary American-length dinner, it would mean they were disappointed, that Hammer & Sickle didn’t meet their homeland’s rather high standards for hospitality. But the Russians outlasted me, ordering plate after plate for the table, long after we had to cry uncle. It clearly was just what they were hoping for.
I’ll admit, I came in the door quite skeptical. Faux-Soviet nostalgia in 2014… really? Would a few backward R’s and “-ski” appended to a word or two be the sum of it? Or would they play the joke all the way through to the end with Cold War paraphernalia and kitschy costumes?
Neither, as it turns out. The icy, smooth austerity of the interior hits closer to modern bars in Eastern Europe than to Eastern Europe’s own version of Soviet nostalgia. Two glittering chandeliers give a nod to apparatchik opulence, and that’s it. Other than that, it’s just a comfortable, dim Uptown bar with about 20 tables and just enough standing room for those who would rather scan the crowd than concentrate on their companions.
Although there are plenty of new American standards on the bar menu — meatballs, sliders, fries — we decided to take out cue from the happy table behind us and stick to the Russian classics. And that, without fail, means vinegret. In Russia, it’s just not a party — or, frankly, any dinner worthy of guests — without beet salad. A cook worth his or her salt can cut cooked beets, carrots, potatoes, and pickles into tiny, perfectly smooth cubes. These are tossed with oil and vinegar and everything turns luscious and pink. Hammer & Sickle deconstructs the classic salad for their Beet Vinaigrette ($8), bringing to the table a wide platter layered with all the right ingredients, plus a tangy mix of mayo and fresh cheese and a base of microgreens — welcome additions. A few beet converts were won over that night.
Also de rigueur anywhere two or more Russians are gathered: zakuski. The word itself means “appetizers,” but the spirit of the word means little open-faced sandwiches of black bread with cured meats and fish and lots of little pickled things.
Hammer & Sickle deconstructs these, too, onto tightly packed wooden platters (choose meat or fish) with soft black bread and a pink pickled deviled egg dotted with caviar. They feel lush and generous, the perfect ambassadors of Russian hospitality.
If it’s going to be an outdoor party, or a gathering of mostly men, in Russia you absolutely need that import from the Caucasus: shashlik. Hammer & Sickle offers six kinds of these barbecue skewers ($10 each), from traditional pork and beef to eggplant and lobster. They come on a bed of loose seasoned rice and, frankly, their cousins in the fatherland would find them a little anemic. Skinny and padded with unseasoned vegetables, they couldn’t stand up to the originals, made with unadorned, brawny hunks of meat that spend a day or more in a complex, oniony marinade and drip with juices when you just look at them. But, wait! A dining companion discovered the two generous dishes of horseradishy sour cream on the side and that made up for the shashlik’s own shortcomings.
You’re probably wondering, “What about the dumplings? Aren’t the stuffed dumplings what Russian cuisine is all about?” We’re getting to those. But we’ll take a quick detour at the golubtsy, stuffed cabbage rolls in tomato sauce. Hammer & Sickle wraps most of a meatloaf — mercifully seasoned far more than its traditional counterpart — in cabbage and serves it, appropriately, with a steak knife. On a silky bed of mashed potatoes, it would feed a small, happy family…
… as would the platter of pierogi. (There they are! The dumplings we all came for.) Hammer & Sickle serves two kinds: the fat half moons the size of your palm called pierogi in Poland and varenyky in Ukraine. These are pan-fried after they’re boiled and served up appetizer style. We went for the classic Comrade, oozing with potato and cheese and covered with fried onions; the other choices — clearly inspired by druzhba narodov (friendship of nations) included flavors your babushka would never recognize, from pork and ginger to chorizo.
What distinguishes Polish pierogi from Russian pelmeny? It’s the size and the filling, our waitress explained. The pelmeny arrived, kak pravilno, swimming in a little bit of butter and vinegar — rough, homely bits of dough pinched around dense balls of meat about the size of the tip of a working man’s thumb. These were the real thing, no adornments or concessions — so right, I began to wholeheartedly hope they would inspire the table behind us to break out into a weepy rendition of Ochi Chyornye.
But, perhaps they, like us, had not had enough to drink to be moved to song. The handful of cocktails we tried were fine, just fine, bordering on forgettable: a too-sour gimlet, a too-sweet take on the Manhattan, a competently made Moscow mule (above). We didn’t even feel tempted to order a second round.
There was, however, even after the mountains cabbage roll and the sea of pelmeny, a strong temptation to order another round of pierogi.
Hammer & Sickle
Vodka bar and Russian restaurant in Uptown
1300 Lagoon Ave
Minneapolis, MN 55113
Brunch Sat–Sun 10am–3pm
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Limited
ENTREE RANGE: $10-$22