In the 35-seat, sky-lit back room of Ariana, a restaurant in Soho, you’ll find a Russian pop star known as “the Slavic Britney Spears.” Her name is Ariana Grinblat and, as the owner of the Russian spot, she has begun hosting weekly concerts paired with five-course dinners. Every Wednesday through mid-December, you can drop $80 for an experience that includes five courses, two specialty cocktails, a shot of vodka, and a very special concert. Think of it as “Queen of the Night” for the Carnegie Hall crowd.
Of course, music in restaurants is nothing new, but as far as live music goes, the typical scene involves tunes that are muted — almost elevator music. An accomplished performer plays at Blue Note or The Carlyle while diners talk over him. But Louis Meisel, the pioneering Soho gallerist who organizes the events with Grinblat (she was his tenant on Prince Street and the two became friends), has a different idea in mind: “I want a return to that old New York,” he says. “The house concerts, the salons of Paris. Call me crazy, but when there’s music of this quality happening, we shouldn’t be walking and talking and whatever.”
Grinblat, who sashays around the restaurant while carrying a tray of vodka shots, all while wearing a zebra-print dress and screaming “Priyatnogo appetita!” (“bon appétit” in Russian), is the perfect match for Meisel. She knows that hosts are basically performers, and her experience as a Russian pop princess with six Russian Grammy awards under her belt makes her a natural.
On Wednesday, Grinblat and Meisel brought along Karén Hakobyan, an Armenian classical pianist who has been performing at major venues since he debuted at Carnegie Hall at the age of 17, to play piano. He tugged anxiously at the lapels of the crushed-velvet, red-and-black floral jacket he had bought especially for the occasion, but as soon as he started playing, two older women — a mother and daughter — sat rapt, one with hands clasped under her chin, the other with her hand covering her mouth during moments of visible awe.
The performers — next up are William Hobbs, followed by Yoonie Han, then Daria Rabotkina — each must play one Russian composition. Hakobyan included a fiery composition of his own amid the Rachmaninoff and Gershwin. One especially complex piece was designed to “imitate two pianos playing at the same time with just two hands, and on the Armenian tetrachordal system.”
In a way, it conjures up a classic phrase that now feels almost anachronistic: “a New York night.” Sadly, many a New York night is a highly predictable outing in Brooklyn or lower Manhattan that involves dinner at a hot restaurant and drinks at crowded bars. But Grinblat’s concerts get at the strange alchemy of wild characters and wide tastes — the kind of fairy-tale version of a New York night that’s as essential to the DNA of the city as a bagel and lox. It reminds diners that there is still exploring to be done, no matter how long you’ve lived here.
And as a bonus: The food itself is playful and vibrant. Yes, tried-and-true beef stroganoff is one of the entrée choices. But there’s also a “deconstructed vinegret” of golden and red beets on a bed of fried kale, sprinkled with rye breadcrumbs, black Burgundy truffles, heirloom tomatoes, and brinza cheese. The poached-sturgeon pelmeni comes striped with squid ink and saffron velouté. The assorted cured fish options are simple but satisfying. The specialty cocktail of the night, a blood-orange number, was nice and spicy. Make sure to ask for the homemade brine — made by Grinblat herself — to chase the vodka shots with a mix of cornichon infusion, mushrooms, and habanero.
“My secret is an apple-vinegar base,” said Grinblat, before adding with a wink, “I grew up in Texas and Russia. If I’m going to try something new, it’s going to be my way.”