Moscow Nights has arrived in Baltimore at the unlikely address of Park Avenue and Howard Street.
The restaurant, which opened last week, is the latest sign of Baltimore's vibrant Russian immigrant community, which is now about 3,000 to 3,500 people.
Another 600 more are expected this year. There is also a Russian-language newspaper, the Forum, which is due for its 15th edition this week. And Moscow Nights is not Baltimore's first Soviet restaurant. The Unlimited Range, at Barclay and 32nd streets, is a small restaurant serving Ukrainian dishes.
Moscow Nights, however, is a major player, with seating for 250, in a large room with an expansive window overlooking Mount Royal Station, Meyerhoff Hall and the Mount Vernon skyline. The restaurant is housed in the former Bolton Hill Dinner Theatre, which the owners renovated and enlarged. The restaurant is on the Howard Street side of the Sutton Place Apartments.
The new dining spot had a dance floor and live music and entertainment on weekends. Last Saturday night, the dancing stopped at 4 a.m. Sunday morning because patrons kept tipping the band. New Year's Eve was equally festive, with balalaikas and electric guitars ushering in 1991.
One night this week, some Maryland Institute art students were ordering oversize bottles of Moscova beer while the dinner crowd had caviar, herring, borscht, jellied meats, dumplings, chicken Vanya, marinated beef, pork Shashlik and, of course, crab cakes.
"I put the crab on the menu because not everyone may want Russian food. But maybe they'll try a little borscht," said Sacha "Alex" Pais, one of the owners.
Pais, 27, owns Reisterstown Road's Pariser's Bakery, which is locally famed for its rye bread. Pais is from Odessa, on the Black Sea, and was 9 years old when he left Russia, via Israel and Italy. He was educated at Baltimore County schools (Sudbrook, Old Court and Randallstown) and at Catonsville Community College.
He has worked as a shoe repairer, dry cleaner, insurance salesman and airport cab driver, sometimes holding more than one of those jobs at the same time. He now owns the bakery and operates a second retail outlet, the Nosh Shop, in the Green Spring Shopping Center in the 2800 block of Smith Ave.
His partner is Vadim Vadulitsky, 28, who arrived in Florida from Kiev in 1978. "I had no English. I took French in school," he said.
"But business was in my blood. Under the socialist system, my mother operated a very successful restaurant and she made plenty of money over her salary. We had a car, a bigger apartment than most people and a summer house. But we wanted to get out." His first job here was at a McDonald's, where he was put on the hot apple pie line.
The family moved to Baltimore and Vadim soon opened a successful Pikesville beauty salon, the Unique. "We charged $40 for a hair-styling, but we gave the customers more service. They liked it and they paid. I've learned here there is money to be made here," he said.
But the pair needed additional help in getting an ambitious restaurant opened. Through their bakery business, they met Rudy Filipovits, 40, a Hungarian-born former employee of Martin's Caterers. The germ of the idea was born at a function at the Preston Room of the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation, where the men got the idea that Baltimore could use a Russian restaurant.
The restaurant, which took more than a year to open, involves other key people. Alex's sister, Lenna Pinkus, is at the door to greet patrons. Alex's wife, Jody, runs the bakery. And the chefs, husband and wife Yemelyan "Emil" and Karolyna Mostovoy, have devised a large and mixed menu that stretches from Moscow to Chesapeake Bay.
The help includes Russian and American waiters. The kitchen reflects both countries, with the bins for flour, rice and confectioners' sugar labeled in English and Russian. The menu is not kosher. "Although I have Jewish blood, religion could not be practiced freely in Russia. Maybe when I get to be an older man I could learn what I could not as a child," said Pais.
Baltimore's Russian immigrant community is largely composed of Jews who sought permission to emigrate. Until about a year ago, there were about 1,500 Russian Jews here. But during the last year, when change has swept through the Soviet Union, another 1,800 have arrived, with more coming each month. Many are engineers, business people and physicians. Some women become manicurists and men will drive cabs at first.
"The food is very good and they know to give large portions," said Mikhail Tsipenyuk, a customer who is past president of the Jewish Union of Russian Immigrants. "And the music is good, too. We all want to see them succeed."