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Firebird, Russian Fantasyland

Firebird, the two-year old Russian restaurant, is dazzling. It seems like a fantasy of what life was like for the noble classes in czarist Russia. Two townhouses joined as one emulate a St. Petersburg mansion, circa 1912, and brighten up New York's Restaurant Row (West 46th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues). Even the name is fabled. Firebird, the Diaghilev ballet, scored by Stravinsky, is based on a Russian folk myth about a legendary bird who stole the Czar's golden apples from his garden. A shiny gilded tree in the center of the downstairs back dining room resembles an illustration that might have come from that very book of fairy tales. And upstairs the saga continues with a display of costumes from the Bolshoi Ballet's original production of "The Firebird."

Could homes have been this opulent in pre-Bolshevik days? Apparently some were, as illustrated by the period photographs on the walls. Our own memories of a visit to St. Petersburg's Yusupov Palace confirms that image and like the palace, museum-quality treasures are crammed into Firebird's every nook, including curio-filled cabinets in the bathrooms. No space is undecorated and leather bound books, fine furniture, porcelain, china, gold framed mirrors, jewelry, Fabergé eggs and objets d'art are too abundant to appreciate in one viewing. Each of four dining rooms has its own mystique.

The food is lavish, too, enticing you to return more than once and to sit in a different room to enjoy just about everything on the menu as well as on the walls. Our favorite is the $19.50 pre-theatre meal served from 5 p.m. until 7. Other New York restaurants offer a $19.99 (priced for the year's date) lunch or dinner, particularly in June during restaurant month, but nothing tops the one at Firebird.

It starts with pokhlyobka, a large bowl of wild mushroom and three grain soup, followed by five ample portions of the day's zakuska (hors d'oeuvres), such as smoked sturgeon, lamb shashlik, herring caviar, chicken salad with walnuts and roasted eggplant caviar. Your waiter, dressed in a white Cossack tunic, trimmed with gold braid, then presents a covered dish of feathery buckwheat blini, sour cream and a pitcher of melted butter.

Appetizers that dispel the image of Russian food as dull are pelmini (dumplings) and crisp seared sweetbreads. If you think borscht is peasant soup, Firebird's version, served as an entree, will cast off that notion in less time than the revolutionaries unseated the czar. Ukrainian borscht is a rich and complex dish made of beets, smoked pork loin, brisket, duck and pirojok (fruit-filled turnovers). Perhaps the best main course is the utka s fruktami, roasted duck breast and confit leg with mushroom vareniki and sour cherry sauce. Nightly specials feature tender beef stroganoff and butter-oozing chicken Kiev.

For dessert order a plate of chocolates and sweet confections, large enough for four to share. And to drink, honey vodka, a libation so smooth and delightful, you'll want to sip it before and after the meal.

Firebird, 365 West 46th Street, New York, NY, 10036. Tel. 212-586-0244. Open, lunch, Tuesday to Saturday; dinner, seven nights. Moderately expensive. www.firebirdrestaurant.com

Winter 1998-99