Nina's Steakhouse (Burnsville, MN)
Escaping the manufactured surroundings of corporate restaurants is, to us, a major advantage of world travel. We love the family-owned taverns and bistros in Europe, the comedores of Guatemala. Give us a personal vision, and we're sympathetic. Give us a meal made from the heart, and we'll be friends forever.
Nina's Steakhouse in Burnsville is such a restaurant. The decor is faux garden mixed with low-rent disco, unaffected and guileless. No focus group has been anywhere near the dining room, and we love that. Formerly known as the Russian Tavern, Nina's is still a gathering place for the area's Russian immigrants.
In addition to the several expected and tasty cuts of steak, the menu offers some real treasures.
The cabbage roll appetizer comes two on a plate. Stuffed with ground beef and covered with tomato sauce, these are perfection.
The assorted pickle platter appetizer comes with delicious tomatoes marinated in vinegar, sugar, salt and garlic. The platter is served with peppers stuffed with sauerkraut, a piquant nibble sure to awaken your appetite.
Combine tomatoes, pickles, peppers and onions, chop and mix them with a light dressing and you'll have the unusual and pungent Caucasian salad.
For dinner, the goulash was a clear winner, with big savory chunks of beef in a thick gravy. And the purported favorite of Mikhail Gorbachev, chicken stuffed with pepper jack cheese, was also filling and tasty.
Peasant-style ravioli is a fabulous baked dish, invented in-house, with cheese and plenty of mushrooms in a cream sauce atop beef ravioli.
Beef stroganoff, a Russian staple, here is a plate of overcooked meat and mushrooms atop poorly cooked noodles. We ordered the frog's legs, so you don't have to. They have little flavor other than their white wine sauce.
Borscht should be available once local beets are in the markets, and the pea soup and chicken soup are perfectly good, though we like our soup served hotter.
If you're celebrating something, your dessert will come with a gigantic sparkler in it. We can assure you that everyone in the restaurant will notice.
Otherwise, Nina's has good blini and pretty good chocolate mousse, as well as that Moscow staple, Turkish coffee.
A new game room with darts, pool and video games is open until 2 a.m. The last Sunday of the month, the buffet includes free vodka martinis.
A band plays on Friday and Saturday nights, and people dance.
While dancing during dinner isn't common hereabouts, it's festive and fun in Russia.
Even if it's warty and imperfect, Nina's finds its way to our hearts through an honest and unpretentious approach to an interesting cuisine.
And besides, Wednesday is Elvis night. You don't want to miss that.