By Laura Reiley
Times Food Critic
ST. PETE BEACH — On Wednesday nights classic Russian films are subtitled and projected on a 15-foot screen while people eat time-honored, and butter-centered, chicken Kiev for the reasonable price of $9.99. Other nights there are Russian music videos and dancing. But what piqued my interest from the entertainment schedule at St. Petersburg Nights was the Thursday evening musical review, Russian Accents. Owner Ilona Sakovich described a sit-down Russian dinner with a show starring Boris and his sax. As part of the show, a live brown bear makes a guest appearance.
The brown bear has been the symbol of Russia for centuries. During the Cold War it was a figure rife with menace, but even now it is the official image of the United Russia Party. It's lucky there are a lot of brown bears in Russia, because it isn't a circus or even much of a party if there's not a dancing bear in the act.
Such ursine pageantry is less common here, but indeed, a silky-coated 2-year-old bear makes a showing, spinning gracefully while chasing some delicacy on a stick. Hailing from Bearadise Ranch in Myakka City, evidently the bear looks forward to the shows because they are often followed by a fast-food drive-through run for ice cream (I'd like a picture of that).
It turns out that the bear wasn't even my favorite part of the night. The dinner and show aren't cheap ($49.50 for a three-course meal, booze and tip extra), but both were full of charm and surprises. Boris, in a series of puffy shirts that would put Seinfeld's to shame, sings folk songs in five languages, on a variety of instruments (managing to make the sax sound every bit as Russian as the balalaika) and often accompanied by two dancers equally adept at belly dancing and the stiff-postured troika.
While Boris, a mountain of a man, croons Dark Eyes, the dining room dispatches a satisfying green salad, a choice of very competent Stroganoff, chicken Kiev or a sweet-glazed salmon, and a moist chocolate cake drizzled with chocolate sauce for dessert. Vodka is certainly the beverage for strict verisimilitude, but there are several sweet and dry Russian wines worth trying. And after dinner, the hookah. Gargantuan and ornate water pipes arrive center table, each smoker getting his or her own mouthpiece with which to suck in the cool, fruity shisha smoke.
This little slice of exotica from Russia's St. Petersburg is barely a block from the water in St. Pete Beach, but seems worlds away. Lovely Ukrainian girls arrive in a Hummer limo, throwing themselves into the hookah and puffing with gusto while mouthing the words to Kalinka.
"Little snowberry, snowberry of mine in the garden, under the pine" — it's about as wintery a sentiment as we get here in Florida.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.