The Place of the Flavored Vodkas


Arts & Culture

“The Russian Samovar: The Place of the Flavored Vodkas,” read the TV screens above the bar: an apt summary, and a reprimand to anyone ordering beer. Horseradish is the vodka of men; ginger is a crowd-pleaser; pomegranate has a reputation as the girlie vodka. Last Tuesday, in honor of the restaurant’s twenty-fifth anniversary, friends of the proprietor Roman Kaplan gathered to pay tribute and drink from his array of flavored vodkas.

Samovar cofounder Mikhail Baryshnikov ordered horseradish vodka. “Horseradish,” said our companion. “That’s what Baryshnikov got? I trust him.” Baryshnikov’s TV alter ego brought Carrie Bradshaw to the Samovar on Sex and the City, but tonight he was in better company. He availed himself of the buffet—dumplings, sliced fish, beet-striped layer cake, a bowl of bright green pickles—and snapped pictures of his dining companions with a digital camera.

“Mazel Tov!” said Philip Roth to Roman when he arrived around eight-thirty, in the middle of several Russian speeches. Roman had already spoken and enjoyed a postspeech indoor cigarette. To Alexander Izbitser, the dapper house pianist, Roth apologized for his own khakis and blazer. He promised he’d wear his tux for the fiftieth. Roman, Baryshnikov, and poet Joseph Brodksy opened the Samovar in 1986. Tuesday night was the anniversary of the late Brodsky’s birth. According to Roman, it also marked sixteen years of Samovar poetry readings as well as twenty-five years of the restaurant.

Mark Krotov—an editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux and cocoordinator of the publisher’s Samovar reading series—said that his grandmother keeps calling to tell him about tributes on Russian radio to Roman and the Samovar. Krotov advocated the dill vodka.

Upstairs, Baryshnikov switched to pomegranate. Downtairs, the Yale Russian Chorus began to sing. A British Gay Talese doppelganger enjoyed this very much. “Encore, encore,” he shouted, and explained to those standing nearby that choral singing was essential to the Russian soul. The Chorus created the impression of non-WASP Whiffenpoofs, favoring sonorous bellows over warbling. But they are not, strictly speaking, old country emissaries. As Philip Roth and Judith Thurman explained to us, the group was founded as an anti-McCarthy gesture by broad-minded undergrads in the early 1950s.

Roth started coming regularly to the Samovar around fifteen years ago. Business was better in those days, he said—of course, it was the late nineties. He met Roman; they became friends. “I come here sometimes alone,” Roth said, just to dine with the proprietor. What do they talk about? “Death,” interjected Thurman. “I mostly listen,” said Roth. Roman tells him about his problems, about his past. Sometimes he reads Roth Russian poetry. “Do you think he’s courting me?” Roth asked.

Perhaps, but Roman has plenty of admirers and he has little need to woo. A large colored-pencil portrait hangs on the wall of the back dining room upstairs. Before a red and green background, Roman smokes a pipe, flanked by the floating heads of Stalin and Nicholas II. The artist was in attendance: Igor Tulipov (“like the flower”), a small white-haired man with a green jacket and a daisy in his lapel. He explained that the drawing was from 2007, and that the woman whose face floats in a samovar is Roman’s wife. The drawing’s cat is more of a composite. “Not exactly one of his cats,” said Tulipov, “but he has three.” Bread and flowers hover near the majestic Roman, and plants with fork hands present various beverages. After speaking with us, Tulipov planted himself alone at a table in the back. Elsewhere on the walls are a SMOKING PERMITTED sign, a poster of the Twin Towers, posters from poetry readings. The lamps downstairs are fringed and hanging; the lamps upstairs are made out of samovars. A photo at one of the downstairs tables shows Roman with Roth and Nicole Kidman. He met them while they were making The Human Stain.

One young Russian woman said she’d first met Roman when she was thirteen. Her poet cousin sometimes reads at the Samovar, she told us. She alternately hung on the arms of assorted elder-bearded men and made out with her hipster-bearded boyfriend.

“Why I am here: because my driver’s license is expiring,” said Maxim Shostakovich, the conductor son of Dmitri. He was just in New York for a few days. In the photo he produced from his wallet, his beard was much darker.

As the buffet disappeared and the crowd retreated into thickets (Baryshnikov and Roth had already departed), we asked Roman how he felt the night had gone.

“Phenomenal,” he said—without emphasis, stating the obvious. He then warmed to the topic, or perhaps decided to indulge us. “I have friends that I love, everywhere!” he added, and gestured expansively. “I have people that I love! What more is there?”

Well, flavored vodka, we suppose.

Molly Fischer is a writer in New York.