A "Prince" Serves Hollywood's "Royalty"
Updated: Mar 18, 2022
ROMANOFF'S - 1940 to 1960
Only in Hollywood could this story be true (and at the same time fitting you might say.) Harry F. Gerguson was born Hershel Geguzin on February 20, 1890, in Lithuania. He had a checkered past to say the least, including abject poverty, frequent jail time, and was involved in countless other scams, but somehow emerged in 1938 on Rodeo Drive in Hollywood, California. Claiming to be the nephew of the last, murdered Russian Tzar, he managed to get Charlie Chaplin, Humphrey Bogart, and James Cagney to help him open Romanoff's, a large restaurant in the heart of Beverly Hills. The almost too grand of a space, included rich leather booths, opulent decor, complete with supposedly Russian Royal crests imprinted on everything but the toilet paper. The place dripped with what can only be described as a Hollywood version of a Russianized Palace. From crystal Chandeliers to tapered and fringed tablecloths.
From all indications, there were very few of the Stars that didn't know full well that Romanoff, the man, was indeed an imposter, but rather than "blow the whistle" they simply embraced the sham instead. And this even included such people as Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons the most powerful Show business Columnists of the day whose livelihood was ostensibly "uncovering the truth" (even if it was truth created by the studio press departments). Here they are at Romanoff's at a party for Sophia Loren apparently approving of the whole charade.
In any case, what people did agree on was the quality of the food. An irony that always struck me was that the Decor and Name of the place - not to mention the supposed lineage of the owner - was most certainly tilted Russian. But Romanoff's was actually a serious French restaurant. And old French too. Half of the most famous French dishes you could name were served, from Escargot to Crepes Suzette. The selections sounded far fancier on the menu than they were on the plate, a trait not uncommon in restaurants of the day, but the menu names were certainly legitimate, though it might have been a little harder to order without some friendly guidance from your waiter. Delicacies like "Delices de Sole Veronique", for example is simply rolls of Dover Sole served with Grapes. That sold for $3.50, while a more familiar item like an 8oz Filet Mignon was $5.25 in comparison. My grandmother was apparently certain on at least one occasion that the "Sole" in this dish was actually thinly prepared Halibut, a much cheaper fish and certainly not "imported", as was Dover Sole, but regardless - it was well-cooked and most importantly the majority of Romanoff's entree menu tended to be hearty. If you've ever fed a bunch of show business folk, as I have many times, there is a real need for bulk! The Nouvelle cuisine craze and banquets of the late 20th-century award shows, and the like (thank you Wolfgang) usually led to a hamburger at the Apple Pan in Westwood an hour later. In my family "food" was not visual arts. Marlene's explanation for "always being hungry", however, was different because, unlike the majority of the other patrons, she was a star. So, for those that were scrutinized to death in public, there was a general rule that when you were out "being seen" (and photographed) you weren't actually supposed to eat. That could lead to that one press shot of spinach between your teeth or worse yet, a spill on your meticulously chosen gown. No, the process was to delicately taste, drink, and eat later. Later, for some stars might have meant a stop at another, less frequented or dark spot somewhere on Pacific Coast Highway, but for Marlene it was home cooking. The largest part of Romanoff's menu was the Hors D'Oeuvre section, perhaps in deference to this idea of "small bites" being less dangerous. There were never fewer than 20 selections. Easy to eat and lending themselves to combining the copious amount of Champagne on offer, most stars avoided things like the Roasted Pheasant but at Romanoff's, there was a fairly willing crowd that actually did eat, and for up to seven courses. Even just the well-to-do did the whole menu and often lounged in the sumptuous booths for hours, as did tourists (if they could tear themselves from rubbernecking.)
There was a surprising lack of anything remotely on the menu that reflected the "supposed" Russian ownership of "Romanoff's". In fact, the restaurant hired a French Chef from the very beginning. A little head-scratching, this fact didn't deter from any of the ambiance of the place. As most of the well-known Russian dishes people may have wanted could easily be made by a French chef, none appeared on the Menu. One such dish missing in print was a Beef Stroganoff. Considered the most Russian of dishes by most, then and now - incorrectly. Actually, In1891, a French chef named Charles Briere was hired by a wealthy Russian family in St. Petersburg and won a cooking contest with a dish he called Beef Stroganov, named after his 112 year-old employer, the texture specially formulated to be soft enough for his master's ancient mouth. Wrongly considered a Russian Dish for over thirty years at the time (now over a hundred years), many regular customers would ask for it - off-Menu. The restaurant quietly obliged, and the resulting Beef Stroganoff at Romanoff's was, from all accounts, seriously delicious. My grandfather Rudy and many other eastern Europeans ordered it with pride, probably not even knowing it was invented by a Frenchman! Based on my mom's experience, she taught me how to make it. So, this is our first recipe of the series:
Romanoff's Beef Stroganoff (Serves 4) Prep time is about 60+ minutes (with time off!) Cook time is about 10-15 minutes!
The first thing you need to master in this recipe is knowing your cuts of Beef. This is of course true for every recipe, but sometimes it is especially important, as it is here. In this kind of situation, you have to decide on various merits of the different cuts, not so much for flavor but for the manner the cut takes to cooking. Much of this is usually about fat content but thought has to be given to the grain of the meat as well - coarser means tougher. As this is the classic version of Stroganoff, you'll be using lean premium meat and it cooks very fast.
3 1/2 pounds boneless Beef Porterhouse Steak or Boneless Sirloin (not TOP Sirloin). (See above)
2 Pounds thickly sliced white button Mushrooms.
3 thinly sliced, medium onions.
3 - 4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
4 - 6 Tablespoons of unsalted butter
1 Tablespoon Olive oil.
3 cups GOOD beef broth. ("Better than Bullion" Beef stock is closest to home-made)
1/4 cup dry red wine (A Cabernet is good; try never cook with a wine you wouldn't Drink!)
2 teaspoons salt (to taste)
1 Tablespoon of Dijon Mustard
2 - 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup sour cream or 1 1/2 cups Creme Fraiche
4 cups hot cooked egg noodles. These should be wider rather than thinner - 1/2"?
1/3 cup Chopped Chives or Parsley for garnish.
Remove the Steak(s) from the refrigerator. First trim all the hard fat from the edges, (all of it) until you have a uniform slab of steak. If you can get your butcher to make them 1/2 inch thick to start with, it's helpful, but if you can't it's okay, it's just more work for you at home! Take each trimmed steak and take a heavy pan, rolling pin or Beef Hammer and pound the heck out of it until it is about 1/3". Cut away any uncooperative sections if they won't bend to your will! Then slice each steak into uniform1/2-inch strips (across the grain) and then with the grain to make 3" long strips (this can vary). Season with salt and a little pepper and set aside for 45 minutes to 1 hour in the refrigerator covered in plastic wrap. The beef is prepped. Take an hour off.
Heat a Large Skillet over medium-high with the tablespoon of Olive oil and a tablespoon of the butter.
Most chefs will correctly tell you to bring meats up to room-temperature before cooking. In this case, when working with delicate and thin slices, the added chill helps prevent over cooking during this process. Remove the prepared beef DIRECTLY from the refrigerator. Have a clean dish ready. Place the beef into the pan when you see the oil just starting to smoke and sear the meat for 30 seconds a side. Try not to "over crowd" the pan. (You can do this in batches, just use another dose of oil and butter). Remove the beef as soon as the meat is properly browned but hopefully not cooked through, move to the dish and set aside. Do not clean the Skillet. You're going to want all that flavor stuck to the bottom.
Start boiling your water for the pasta - make sure the water is salted. (Always do this when making Pasta. Use about I tablespoon of Kosher salt per quart, or 1/2 Tablespoon if you're using table salt. Many also add olive oil to the pot which prevents boil-overs but if you do this, the pasta will no longer be best with sauces like this or even with Tomato Ragu as the oil prevents the Pasta from really drinking in whatever sauce you put it in.)
Time to prepare the other Skillet ingredients. In the same skillet, set burner to medium heat. Add another tablespoon of butter and add the sliced onions. Cook for a few minutes until they begin to "sweat" (do not brown) and become translucent. Add the Garlic - count to twenty - and then add the Mushrooms. Stir the mixture. As the juices come out of the mushrooms after a few minutes, try and scrape up any brown bits left on the sides and bottom of the pan. Add the Red Wine and stir until the alcohol has burned off, about 2 minutes. Again, stir and get the remainder of any of the brown bits stuck on the Skillet (for future reference, this browned coating is called "Fond". The term of removing Fond into the dish you are making is called "Deglazing the pan").
Start your pasta. (As soon as it's done, drain, add butter (not oil) and shake out to be sure it's not sticking. Set aside and keep warm.)
In the Skillet, add one more tablespoon of butter and add the flour, continue stirring as you cook to stop lumps from forming.
Start adding the Beef Broth or Stock in small amounts while stirring or whisking. (Whisking can often help the flour be lump free.)
Add the Sour Cream or Creme Fraiche (preferred) and mustard. Stir.
Bring Skillet back to medium-high heat and bring to a hard simmer. Then turn down the heat and keep on a low simmer for 3-5 minutes or until sauce has thickened to your taste. Check for salt and pepper, add if necessary.
Bring the Skillet back up to Medium. Take the reserved beef (with any juices) and dump it all in and stir it around until well coated. Simmer for no more than 1-2 minutes.
Place a portion of warm/hot Egg noodles on a plate or in a bowl and spoon the beef mixture on top. The proportions are about 2 to 1, Noodles to Sauce but it's really up to you. Garnish with Parsley or chopped Chives.