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If we walked around Manhattan looking for a building that reminded us of St. Petersburg, we might chose the 1907 Alwyn Court with its intricate carvings on the double facade, one facing Seventh Avenue and the other 58th Street. The Petrossians, the name is associated with the world's best caviar, might for the same reason have settled on this location to open their eponymous restaurant and shop. The Czar's rule ended shortly before the Petrossian brothers founded their business in Paris. Success depended on being able to buy the choicest catches in the Caspian Sea from the Soviets. But caviar, foie gras, sturgeon and smoked salmon, all purveyed by the family, were the foods of the Romanov reign. It is to those times that the restaurant is a tribute.

You are surprised to see a small gourmet boutique not far from the entrance. It turns out to be a great marketing concept. Inside the refrigerated case is a varied assortment of mouth-whetting foods. You sample all of them with your eyes, wishing you could take home one of each. To do so means you would have to drop a bundle. Never mind, knowing the craving that the display induces, the restaurant has a fix.

Petrossian, New York (credit: Edwin Fancher)

The first listing on the menu is appropriately called "teasers," a combination of appetizers inspired by French and Russian hors d'oeuvres and zakouski and using many of the Petrossian products sold at the counter. Golden slices of smoked eel were napped with julienne vegetables. Delicate smoked sturgeon was accompanied by chopped radish and cucumber. Smoked cod roe, prepared like taramasalada, was sandwiched between flaky cheese crisps. The house version of gravlax was formed into beggar's purses and filled with salmon tartare and topped with salmon roe. Succulent smoked trout and perky horseradish sauce were wrapped in egg crepes. Silky foie gras and slivered tart apple filled little rounds of puff pastry–an extraordinary presentation and a marvelous first course or entree.

We also recommend the blini, those slightly sweet yeast pancakes, served with five different combinations of toppings. Choose one that includes maviar, a white tiny-grained salty, smoky cod roe. Copious portions of Russian salmon roe, sevruga caviar, pressed caviar and smoked salmon are offered with blini, too.

The best venison we've ever eaten is on Petrossian's menu. Ordered medium rare, the pink slices cut from the loin were as tender and as carefully aged as filet mignon.

For dessert you might order pear charlotte, a tart that looked like a muffin and was turned upside down in a graham cracker crust and bathed in rum sabayon. Lemon tart in a buttery crust was indeed very tart, but its astringency was tempered by a very sweet caramel sauce.

The restaurant is warm and there is a glow about it–lighting that is soft and dim, an irregularly-shaped room that gives it intimacy, lots of flowers and behind the bar a fan-like mirror with Erté etchings. A chic, international crowd eats here, but so do many other plain folks who are on their way to or from nearby Carnegie Hall.

Petrossian, 182 West 58th Street, New York, NY 10019. Tel. 212-245-2217. Expensive. There is, however, a reasonably priced prix fixe dinner, which includes some of the best menu selections. Wine list is excellent. Open for lunch, Monday to Friday: Saturday and Sunday, brunch; and dinner every night. www.petrossian.com

Spring 1996