Mar. 26, 2013
The colors of the neon lights around the bar at Irina’s Restaurant and Bar are constantly changing. / Zach Boyden-Holmes/Metromix
7:04 p.m.: Sitting atop my stool on the side of the bar closest to the secondary dining room, I have a wide-angle view of Irina’s Restaurant and Bar, like Simba perched atop Pride Rock. Hopefully no one’s father will get trampled on the dance floor later in the night. But from what I’ve seen of Irina’s Friday and Saturday night crowds, never say never. The bartender flutters around taking orders in a pronounced Russian accent.
7:11 p.m.: My raspberry martini ($7) arrives garnished with lemon — not soon enough to add a liquid buffer between myself and the two couples loudly debating the state of the real estate market to my right. Irina’s has rotating flavors of house-made infused vodka. Tonight they are raspberry, mango, horseradish, pineapple and lemon. The man and woman to my left gush over the horseradish flavor. Having sampled Irina’s cucumber vodka, my expectations are higher than Moscow’s Ostankino Tower (that’s more than 1,200 feet tall). Tucking into the martini, it doesn’t disappoint.
7:16 p.m.: The ambient electronic music builds in the background. As I continue to sip, I glance around to take in Irina’s luxurious, swanky vibe. Dancing lights resembling reflections cast off illuminated water flicker in magenta, yellow and aqua on the wall near the entrance to the kitchen. Irina’s serves Russian-American cuisine, but the photo slideshow on the wall transports viewers to the motherland with images of Russian money, landmarks and nature scenes.
7:20 p.m.: In the dining area, five tables are filled. Some wait for food and others nibble on appetizers. It’s a Thursday, but on the weekends the wait for a table can be an hour or more. Even on a quiet Thursday it’s impossible not to feel the energy of the space. The music’s lithe string lines and strong beat encourage, no command, at least a head nod or heel flick, if not more.
7:31 p.m.: My eyes rove around the walls of the bar. Six TVs play a mix of sports, the BBC, crime and reality television. One 20something woman dripping in jewelry leaves clutching a to-go box — a common sight at Irina’s, where the beef stroganoff ($17) and Russian pork shashlik ($18) prove formidable even for the hungriest diners.
7:41 p.m.: The atmosphere of Irina’s itself is intoxicating. Dark metal lanterns cast a reddish glow on the bar counter. The lighting is dim. Faux amber candles flicker to the perpetual pulsing of the music in the background.
7:50 p.m.: The couple to my left leaves. No doubt they’ll be back for the horseradish vodka sometime soon. The windows are lit with colors matching the flickering light on the wall. It’s early yet, and the dance floor remains untouched. Someone needs to order a Russian shot in the signature style: Inhale the rye bread, down the vodka and crunch the sour pickle bite. I didn’t have to wait long.
7: 59 p.m.: The first Russian shot I’ve seen all night. It’s about time. Even on a slow night the wait staff hustles back and forth to the kitchen. Usually the crowd at Irina’s is insatiable, but tonight the staff is managing to keep up. The couple at the bar across from me orders the shrimp appetizer ($9, or $4.50 during happy hour, 3-6 p.m. Monday through Sunday). Both seem tentative, as if it’s a first date. I doubt they’ll be two-stepping any time soon.
8:26 p.m.: I finally give in after staring longingly at the menu the bartender not so subtly propped on the counter. I order the calamari drizzled with lemon thyme aoli prepared and breaded onsite ($10). It arrives piled high, easily enough for three. Looks like I’ll be asking for a to-go box of my own before long.
8:39 p.m.: As drinks are freshened around the oval-shaped bar, I continue to work on my martini. Weathering the infused vodkas at Irina’s requires a fortitude equal to that needed to survive a winter in Siberia. But they’re worth every drop of courage required.
9:05 p.m.: Just as I’m about to leave, things start to get interesting. Three new arrivals deposits themselves directly across the bar from me. With a degree of sacrilege previously unknown to this reviewer, one of the women orders a Coors Light despite the infused vodka and Russian beer that abounds. At least she also ordered the mashed potatoes, an Irina’s specialty according to her male companion.
9:11 p.m.: The bartender stops by to explain about the infused vodkas made every 72 hours with rye vodka from Poland. Merely 30 seconds after he finishes speaking, a group leaves its table and gathers at the back of the bar to ogle the fruit and vegetables soaking in the large glass containers dispensing the vodka. It’s that good.
9:13 p.m.: With my martini finished, that’s my cue to leave, to-go box in hand and the Russian stacking dolls, which had been flashing across the big screen in the main room, still dancing in my mind.
Irina’s Restaurant and Bar
Find it: 2301 Rocklyn Drive, Urbandale
Hours: 3 p.m.-2 a.m. Monday through Sunday
Info: 515-331-0399, irinasrestaurantandbar.com