When Natasha's opened on Southland Drive in the early 1990s, I had the privilege of doing its first review. It was a Russian import shop with a small café on the side. Some of the food was good, but I thought a lot of it would be better appreciated in Russia than in Lexington. I didn't think that it had found its niche or that it would survive on Lexington's south end.
In 2001, Natasha's opened a downtown café, and I reviewed it then, too. It was better — much better. It had found its niche. And ever since Natasha's opened on the Esplanade, the crowds have gotten bigger, it has expanded to include sidewalk dining, the import half of the business moved into its own space next door, and now, Natasha's has full bar service and live entertainment or something going on almost every night.
When you enter Natasha's Bistro & Bar, it gives you an Old World feel, with its Moroccan lanterns and bare brick walls. Natasha's calls its food New American cuisine, but I think it is mostly Russian-Mediterranean-Thai influenced. Yeah, you can get a bison burger — they call it The Space Burger ($12) — but when you can get interesting stews, roulades and Thai stir-fry, who wants a burger?
I've eaten at Natasha's multiple times before this review, including a few times for dinner, a couple of times for lunch and once for Saturday brunch.
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At that brunch, I had a very nice vegetarian quiche (fluffy and light) and a cup of a Thai chowderlike soup (very creamy and spicy).
I also had the “salad bar.” It made me laugh. It has to be the smallest “salad bar” on earth. Some salad bar aficionados could pile Natasha's entire bar on one plate. That said, the quality of the few selections was excellent. The greens (Romaine, spinach and field greens) were fresh, and there was not a leaf of iceberg lettuce. The bar was rounded out by feta and shredded Cheddar cheeses, chopped tomato and one salad dressing (creamy Italian, maybe?), plus other incidentals. I made a good salad with what was offered.
Brunch was $9, excluding tip. It was cheap for all that food. The quiche and salad bar were $6.99, a bargain. Hot tea was $1.50. The soup was extra (about $2.50), but it was left off the bill. So with tax and soup, the bill should have been $12 plus tip.
Dinner is where Natasha's shines. Its menu is cosmopolitan and its entrees include Hungarian goulash, midnight chicken stew, mushroom pot pie and ratatouille Provence. I certainly wanted to try them all.
On my most recent visit, we got the last two-person table in the place. A popular band was booked, and so were the tables. We started that dinner with the Mediterranean sampler ($9) — baba ghanouj, hummus, tabouli and mushroom salad. Neither the baba ganoush nor hummus was traditional, though, which is very plain. At Natasha's, they were nicely flavored with garlic and served with some slightly puffy pita points.
With entrees, you get a choice of soup or salad. I got the soup of the day, an acorn squash cream soup. It was thick — almost a puree — and rich with nutmeg. It was a pleasant prelude to the midnight chicken curry stew ($16). If you've ever ordered chicken curry in a Chinese restaurant, Natasha's version is similar. In the stew, served over rice, were raisins, carrots and cauliflower.
My dinner guest chose the house salad to go with the pork roulette ($19). The salad was fresh and similar to the one I made myself at brunch, but the pork roulette was a smash. Pork tenderloin had been stuffed with garlic, herbs, prunes and brie, then topped with mozzarella. The pork was as good as you can get anywhere: tender, garlicky and cheesy.
Now for a misstep: For dessert, I wanted flourless chocolate cake ($5), but our server was getting distracted with the other patrons. It was getting hectic. He brought us something else. We asked him to take whatever he brought back and bring the flourless chocolate cake. Eventually, maybe 15 minutes later, he brought chocolate ganache torte. If I'd wanted fudge pie, I would have ordered it. I never got the flourless chocolate cake.
That dinner for two, including two beers ($5 each), and tax but not tip was $68.
It looks as if Natasha's has found its niche, and that's downtown.