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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Abacus Equation: Schizo but Satisfying

One of the truly exciting things about navigating a Russian-language menu promoting international cuisine is that you are never quite sure what you are going to get.

I can recall one trip to a Georgian restaurant when I discovered that the exotic sounding ghomi was nothing other than hominy grits -- that tasteless white gruel that is the staple of American southeastern cuisine.

My dining companion and I had a similar experience this week when we descended into the wooden interior of Abacus, a cozy basement caf? in the city center that offers a lunchtime alternative to Big Macs and milk shakes from the Golden Arches. Leafing through the Abacus menu, we pooled our linguistic skills and settled on two of the house specialties, a kartofelny pirog, or potato pie (50,000 rubles, or $9.60) and baranniny ryobrishki, or lamb ribs (75,000 rubles).

Expecting a traditional Russian pirozhok -- one of those delightful doughy numbers stuffed with pureed potato -- we were startled to discover that our pie was actually a very large potato pancake, admirably lacking in grease, which was served with a fried egg on top and a side of cured salmon.

Once the potato pancake was revealed, we were eager to see what form the lamb would take. I anticipated little square chunks of meat still clinging to the bone, while my dining companion imagined a rack of lamb. After debating this issue back and forth, our waitress finally brought us lamb chops.

The lamb was a bit dry, but this was cleverly disguised by the accompanying tart berry sauce. Indeed, the best part about the lamb was what came with it. The medallions of gratinee potatoes, sliced paper-thin and layered with butter and cheese, had to be one of the highlights of the meal. There was also a dollop of ratatouille, but my dining companion felt the oregano and tomato base competed too much with all the other flavors on the plate.

The nice thing about a limited menu is that in one meal you can taste a representative sampling. Indeed, the menu at Abacus is not only small but schizophrenic, featuring a Mexican chili (25,000 rubles), American barbecued chicken wings (40,000 rubles), and Russian pelmeni, or dumplings (35,000).

Other Russian influences include an assortment of soups. The mushroom soup, glistening with amber dots of chicken fat, had an aroma that was both gentle and promising, but it is not for those who shy away from salt.

I opted instead for fried eggplant (20,000 rubles), which was served in strips distributed haphazardly across the plate. Whatever the eggplant lacked in presentation, it made up for in taste. It was tender and garlicky and had a hint of something even hotter that kicked in a few seconds after first impact.

In addition to the Mexican bottled varieties, Abacus also has a number of draught beers, including Heineken, Lowenbrau and Grolsch. We were more intrigued by the unfiltered house draught, a tangy brew that washes down well with lamb chops or grilled cheese, and is made specially for Abacus in Moscow. And at 20,000 rubles a half liter, you cannot afford not to try it.

With its beer, billiards and Johnny Cash soundtrack, Abacus feels more like a pub than a restaurant. I particularly enjoyed the soundtrack in the bathroom, which turns on automatically with the lights.

Abacus is the kind of place where you can drop in on your own or meet friends for a casual meal. There is something very comforting about basement dining -- perhaps because you can't tell whether it is raining for the 15th day in a row. Those who do decide to stay out of the rain and push through until dawn can catch a late night menu, offering, among other things, salsa and pelmeni until 5 a.m.

Abacus Caf?, at 3 Gazetny Pereulok, is open from noon to 5 a.m. daily, and is down the street from the Central Telegraph Office. Telephone: 222-0904. Rubles only. Nearest metro: Okhotny Ryad.