We were young and we wanted to celbrate our very special date with a memorable dinner. Our pockets were fairly empty, at that time chorus dancers and singers didn't earn much, so we scrounged and saved for a few months in order to reserve a place at The Russian Tearoom, a restaurant on 57th Street in Manhattan that gives its address as "Slightly to the left of Carnegie Hall."
After the Russian Revolution, dancers, musicians and actors-once stars in St. Petersburg and Moscow-began to emigrate to New York City and the Tearoom became a hangout for White Russians, who, like most newcomers, were looking for a taste of their former home. They were homesick for the gossip, intrigue, intellectual discussions and of course, the sweets and pastries of the Czar's Russia. Feodor Chaliapin, a commanding Russian opera star, and Michel Fokine, who introduced Americans to the Imperial Russian Ballet werre among the newly arrived talents who enjoyed the food and the ambiance.
I don't know why I wanted to eat at the Tea Room-it's still a mystery to me. Though my grandparents came to America from Russia, they came to escape the pogroms-family legend says a countess hid them from the Cossacks-they were poor and they traveled in steerage. They dreamed of America and couldn't wait to arrive at Ellis Island, study and become American citizens. Perhaps it's just something about royalty that intrigues Americans. We do like to dress up and pretend to be a lovely princess waiting to be discovered by the prince.
The Russian Tearoom's setting, warm and welcoming, greeted us with green walls that served as a backdrop for to vivid, scarlet leather banguettes displaying tablecloths and napkins pink as the first blush of spring wine. Christmas decorations-brightly colored ornaments that would remainb all year-garlanded the room along with highly polished samovars perched on pillars that sparkled and ignited my imagination with dreams of Tartars-nomads who traveled across Asia brewing tea to slake their thirst. Buffed wood and gleaming mirrors reflected images of the elegant clientele seated around the restaurant and promised a dinner we would never forget.
The waiters, dressed in Red Russian tunics and the busboys in green paid attention to their guests without being intrusive; we settled down and each ordered a Bloody Mary. A Russian restaurant-vodka was and is the specialty of the bar.
We began our dinner with the Tearoom's traditional hot borsht made with red beets, shredded cabbage, and the freshest vegetables of the season. The borsht, flavored with dill, was crowned with sour cream. Piroshki-little meat filled dumplings made with puff paste and filled with beef, parsley, onions, eggs and Tabasco attended the borsht.
The main course, Chicken Kiev-rich with sweet, herbed butter stuffed in a boned and breaded chicken breast, then deeply fried came next. the dish is thought to have been created by a French chef who served at the court of Alexander I.
We pricked the chicken and marveled at the stream of butter that rose from the plate. The first succulent bite was about to be placed in each of our mouths and then...and then...we heard a soft moan that gradually increased in volume. We put down our forks and exchanged a glance. The sound became louder and we looked at the adjacent banguette. A sweet, baby-faced woman was moaning much to the concern of an equally young and helpless appearing man who sat by her side. Soon everyone in the Tearoom stopped eating and began staring at the couple. From our banquete I could see the woman was pregnant and leaned over to ask if there was anything I could do though my experience consisted of watchig movies where someone boiled water.
A flutter of her hand said, "Go away."
The maitre d escorted a distinguished fellow to the table.
"Madam, I am an obstetrician. May I help you?"
"Not yet," she said. "Not yet."
The Tearoom grew silent. No sound of fork, spoon or knife could be heard. No glasses clinked in tribute to Christmas. No one was sure what the proper etiquette was. Does a caring person keep eating when someone may be about to give birth? The doctor looked as confused as everyone else.
The young woman stoppped moaning and slowly sank to a prine position in her booth. She couldn't be seen and she couldn't be heard-conversation resumed. We relished each bite of our Chicken Kiev and ate every last bit of our dessert-Baklava made with sheets of thin phyllo pastry and sweetly layered with walnuts, honey and connamon.
We've never forgotton that Christmas anniversary dinner and I've often thought about that woman. Did she give birth on Christmas? In the Russian Tearoom? A boy? A girl? And did the doctor finish his dinner?