At Nikolai’s Roof: Caviar, vodka and the ghosts of Russian glory

As far as revolutions go, it wasn’t a terribly bloody one. No heads rolled. No monuments tumbled.

But, in the annals of Atlanta restaurants, the quiet transformation last year of Nikolai’s Roof — one of the city’s most iconic dining rooms — was nothing less than a red-letter date in history, if you’ll pardon the pun.

Nikolai’s arrived at the top of the downtown Hilton in 1976, when relations between Moscow and Washington were as chilly as a wintry dip in the Caspian.

This was the Cold War era, baby, not to mention America’s bicentennial, so why not mock the Commies by romanticizing Mother Russia in all its Czarist splendor? If America could put a man on the moon, the Hilton chain could transport patrons to old St. Petersburg via space-age glass elevators, and throw in a view of Peachtree Center and Stone Mountain to boot.

In this gilded birdcage, 30 stories above peasant level, one could experience caviar, fine china stamped with Faberge eggs, and waiters in red Cossack smocks. It was the Russian Tea Room meets Windows on the World, Southern-style.

If you remember Nikolai’s in its heyday, if you ever celebrated a special occasion there or grooved the night away on the parquet dance floor, you may feel a twinge of nostalgia when you behold the minimalist chill installed by the new guard.

Thanks to the architecture and interior design firm CMMI Inc. (now known as C + TC Design Studio), the swanky Diana Vreeland red room has been replaced with corporate beigeness: light fixtures of ribbony glass, sparkly mini-tiles and a sleek counter covered with a phalanx of warped, hallucinogenically tall silver and green vases.

For decades, Nikolai’s was venerated as the pinnacle of luxurious fine dining in Atlanta. Today, its management team seems aware that train has left the station. The city is a magnet of hip food trends. Southern cooking is back. Ethnic eateries are commonplace. Competition is fierce. Casual is in.

So, when the new Nikolai’s was unveiled, word went out that its vertiginous prices would be lowered by 10 percent to 15 percent. An added inducement: From 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, you may sample chef de cuisine Stephanie Alderete’s updated menu as a three-course special for $39, which is what we did on a recent Friday.

But, first, I called to inquire about appropriate attire, and the hotel’s switchboard operator told me it’s “cosmopolitan.” Come again? Just wear a coat, she said. Don’t worry about a tie.

Very good, then.

We arrived in jackets, only to find guests in T-shirts and shorts (what, no Halston?) — a tacky reminder that downtown is convention central and that Nikolai’s white-gloved waiters and silver-dome service have gone the way of Chekhov’s cherry orchard.

And, yet, all is not lost, comrades.

There are still pirozhki, caviar service, borscht and a serious wine program — 400 selections chosen by general manager and sommelier Daniel J. Rudiger. Despite its Russian posturing, Nikolai’s kitchen has long been grounded in French classics. Alderete’s style (which I am calling “contemporary continental”) and Rudiger’s thoughtful wines continue to reflect that heritage.

In the end, ours was a memorable evening, albeit in a “Twilight Zone” kind of way.

Service was on point. The martinis were crisp and cold, the Manhattans sweet and mellow.

And, man, those pirozhki.

Ethereal poufs of pastry stuffed with roasted chicken, served with a puddle of bernaise, they were gone in a minute. (As was a nice little amusé of canteloupe sorbet with a splash of house-infused peach vodka.) Guests ordering a la carte can appreciate Alderete’s playful, inventive approach: diver scallops with quinoa crackers and Parmesan-and-lemon cream or a frisee-and-bacon riff of kale, preserved-lemon feta, soy egg, crispy shallots and lardons.

My fittingly named early-bird entree — “sauteed young chicken breast,” cluck, cluck — was a generous pile of poulet scattered with fingerlings, favas and English peas, sauced with truffle demi-glace. Better was the roasted salmon option, presented with a pillow of leek mousse, poached mussels, truffles and sauce Normandy.

Nikolai’s has long been famous for its dramatic souffles, into which a spoon is plunged and a rich sauce poured. Our seductive dark-chocolate version was soaked with espresso creme fraiche. We capped the night with a shot of lime-infused vodka: sweet, tart and served in an elegant little frosted glass with a curlicue handle. Perfect.

It’s nice to know that dinner at Nikolai’s is no Russian roulette. Like the Hyatt Regency’s Polaris and the Westin Peachtree Plaza’s Sundial, Nikolai’s is a high-in-the-sky touristic haunt. But Alderete is no slouch. She nails the Russian standards. She knows her French technique. She shows modern flair.

Still, in Nikolai’s new digs, you can’t help but think that something of old Atlanta has vanished.

The intentions were noble, no doubt. Yet, more has been lost, perhaps, than gained. The Osetra lingers. The view of the Gold Dome beckons. But the bauble has burst. The tchotchkes, the whimsy, the hot Muscovite nights are gone.

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