I'm always curious about the ethnic types of restaurants I've never tried. Your tummy isn't satisfied by just a handful of cultures, right ? So, it was good to see good reviews:
of Arbat Russian Restaurant in Fitchburg:
I prefer to use music to measure driving around Madison, so I started up "Earth Sun Moon" by Love & Rockets as I left Sun Prairie. When I pulled into the large, mildly upscale plaze that Arbat is in (along with the convenient post-meal Cold Stone Creamery), track #7 ("Waiting for the Sun") ended just as I got out of the car. I chose that album because online reviews suggested I should expect Arbat to be awesome, and "Earth Sun Moon" is awesome.
I was greeted by Yana (I'm pretty sure), the owner/chef's girlfriend, who was friendly but seemed tired. She had to clean off a table for me, so I suspect I was coming in right after the dinner rush. I picked a Monday night to avoid waiting or the need for a reservation, and if you go on a Friday or Saturday, given that the place seems to only have 7 or 8 tables, you might want to keep that in mind.
Going into Arbat, my goal was to try the Siberian Pelnini (beef/pork dumplings in sour cream sauce), but as my finger aimed in that direction, Yana was quick to let me know they were all out. So, I decided to go with Mushroom Dumplings instead. I've never had Borscht before, so I opened with that, and the online reviews of the Cherry Vereniki (dumplings) were glowing, so I chose that as dessert.
I don't drink alcohol, so I went with (just regular) iced tea, which was a bit mild, but I drank 3 glasses, so it served its purpose.
Growing up in rural central Wisconsin, my family had a large garden, and with our produce, neighbor's gardens and local farms, we probably got by on something like 40% subsistence farming. The bad news there is that my parents grew a lot of root veggies (carrots, kohlrabi, turnips, beets), and for whatever reason, beets were the vegetable I most turned my nose up at as a kid, and as an adult, I haven't had much need to go back to beets. Enter: Borscht. I always heard that Borscht was a cold soup, but Arbat serves it as a hearty vegetable near-stew, thick with shredded beets, a few large chunks of meat (beef or lamb, I suspect), and a dollop of sour cream. Just shy of $4, you get your money's worth, because the bowl is large and deep, and I had to give up after I'd picked out all the solids (knowing I had an entree and dessert yet to come). Arbat's Borscht could easily be an entree by itself for a light eater, or a hearty lunch dish. Depending on your tolerance for acidic root veggies, I suppose.
The mushroom dumplings were simple and hearty, served with a large dollop of sour cream and a side of cabbage salad, which was basically shredded cabbage in a vinegar sauce with an unusual flavoring that I couldn't identify. I grew up on the sweet style of cole slaw that I think many German-Wisconsinite mothers made/make, and so any cabbagey dish like this seems plain/strange and off-flavor. Two forks and I left the cabbage alone. The dumplings were very tasty and the sour cream provided a nice cool complement. There weren't much (any) spices going on with this dish, but the dumplings were lightly and tastefully sauteed (I think), and the mushroom filling was generous and rich in natural flavor.
Finally, there were the Cherry dumplings. I think I got 7, which is more than shown on the plate at the Madison A-Z review, so maybe they've bumped up the portion size since. In the center of the plate was another HUGE dollop of sour cream. Sour cream was used in 3 of 3 of my dishes. Arbat keeps Wisconsin's sour cream industry in business ! Also, note that dumplings were 2 of 3, but I like dumplings, and they do have plenty of non-dumplin things on the menu (I'd say the menu is maybe... 50% dumpling-ish ?). Anyway, the cherry dumplings were plump and so full of juice that they squirted yummy hot stuff on my plate (and off) about half the time. So, be careful of that if you're on a hot date wearing something nice. The cherry filling was probably from a can, but it was still tasty, and the dumplings, sprinkled with powdered sugar, were an unusual spin on dessert fare. At times, I was reminded of cherry pie, but then because of the dumplings... the palate was off in some other strange place too. Again, very light spicing going on here... pretty much just the powdered sugar.
I think I walked into Arbat around 8:05 on a Monday night, and I walked out at 9:05, 5 minutes after closing. So, I got a good full hour of food. Knowing I was going to write this review, I ordered probably an extra course (or two) than I might have normally. Doing this meant that I was completely full when I left, and I came in on an empty stomach.
I had a very pleasant experience at Arbat, and it was great to finally experience Russian cuisine. I'm going to give it a solid B, which means I plan on going back again, but my first exposure wasn't quite on the level where I'd say it's in the "Best in Dane" category. Perhaps I'd have been more wowed if I'd been able to get my first choice, the Siberian Pelmini, but I couldn't, and so I've got to factor that in, I suppose. But please, don't read too much negativity into a B grade. If like me, your Russian exposure is very low, Arbat is recommended just for that. Also check out Arbat if you have a taste for hearty dishes that emphasize natural flavor through low/no use of spices. And if you like dumplings... well then it's a REAL no brainer because apparently the Russians love dumplings.