Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Ambrose and Rudi at a Party

by Ambrose Blake (Tom Emch)

On the second floor of Bali's Restaurant at Pacific and Battery, where the buffet was set up as if for the Czar or perhaps Rudi Nureyev, I found myself staring at the roast suckling pig. It rested head and all on a bed of mashed potatoes, cantaloupe and pineapple slices, with an apple in its mouth and cherries where its eyes once were, giving it a decidedly unhappy expression.

It was about to be demolished along with half a dozen pheasants, twenty pounds of Iranian caviar, a salmon in aspic, a crown of pork roast, a steamboat roast of beef, some cheese paskha, pirog, piroshki, kulich or Russian Easter bread, kuliblak, dolmandes in grape leaves and some black bread for the peasants. On another table was the dessert: a huge layer cake with the words "Spasiba Rudik" frosted onto the top and a bathtub full of ambrosia. Centerpiece on the buffet table was a swan carved from a three-hundred pound block of ice, the creation of sculptor Guerrino Cassano.

The small service bar was doing a b risk business in Polish vodka and, naturally, I was posted an arm's length from the bar in accordance with Blake's Third Law.

The law states that you should station yourself close to the bar and not too far from the hors d'oeuvres at cocktail parties. It increases your options. But of course laws are made to be broken, and so it was, rather suddenly.

I was armed against the milling throng with a scotch over and ready with a riposte in case some oaf spilled caviar on my jacket when it happened.

Madame Armen Bali enters with Nureyev in tow. Everyone is greeting everyone: "Hi, love" and "Hello, my darling." I should have been alerted when the barman, Tochobanian, poured two oversize shot glasses full of the good vodka, Stolichnaya, and passed them up to Mme. Bali and Nureyev. She said something to her guest of honor in Russian and knocked back the vodka. Then she whirled and threw the glass against the back bar where it shattered. "Pow."

Before I had a chance to brush the shards of glass from my sleeve, Nureyev tosses down his vodka and rifles his glass into the back bar where it explodes like a fragmentation grenade.

Wow, I thought, this could turn into a great party if the glassware holds out.

No one seemed surprised at the glassware bombing exercise, and the barman explained: "It's a Russian custom. They break the glass to seal the toast and no one can use the glass for another toast."

I said: "That's okay with me but I called for a slider and Nureyev threw me a curve ball."

Shortly after the assemblage began queuing up for the goodies, the line was somewhat longer than for a peek show at a county fair. One of the first casualties was the cherry eyes of the suckling pig; the icy swan started melting, too. So I ordered another scotch over, ground a little glass into the rug and left for the first floor bar where the dancing girls were.

It was probably time to leave. They were passing glasses of Stolichnaya to the Countess Irina Tolstoy, the grandniece and last living relative of the famed novelist. And it didn't look like her aim was too good.

Ballet dancers, Russian nobility, free-loaders are all friends of Mme. Bali, who shortened her name from Baliantz when she arrived here in 1950 after fleeing Siberia, Manchuria, Tsingtao and winding up in a displaced persons camp in the Philippines.

Her restaurant; first on Sansome Street and now on Pacific, has been headquarters for exiled Russians for years. It was through Russian friends that she met Nureyev five years ago. With a common interest in ballet and vodka, they became fast friends and mutual admirers.

For this particular party Nureyev had flown from Washington after a rehearsal and was scheduled to fly back the next day.

While the caviar, champagne and ambrosia people were having at it upstairs, the first floor rocked to the wild gypsy music of a group called the Ararat. It was a foot-stomping, vodka-drinking music of the sort that makes you want to grab the girl next to you, flare your nostrils and shout something in Russian.

However, some of us found it more prudent to merely wander about with scotch in hand checking the array of decolletage and trying to keep the people with Cossack boots from stepping on our toes.

Russian gypsy music can make some people very agitated and of course one never knew where the next shot glass, empty of vodka, was going to land.

As the evening wore on, and various grand entrances were made by assorted columnists and state senators, it got so crowded that I edged toward the door to take the air. Outside, on Battery Street, was the white Cadillac convertible that had whisked Rudi from the airport. It was covered with flowers; there were flowers and flower petals everywhere, even on the street. And carnation petals can be slippery, as more than one reveler found out.

San Francisco police had Pacific blocked off from Battery to Sansome, and not a few partygoers were dancing in the street, if not lurching.

The buffet room ended up a mess. But, no one seemed to care. Particularly Mme. Bali who owns the place. She was having a marvelous time, greeting friends with a kiss and circulating throughout the crowd that was about double the number invited.

The hand-clapping gypsy music continued into the morning by which time, as one observer noted, there were people dancing on top of a police radio car on Battery Street. Not bad for a finale.

San Francisco Examiner/Chronicle April 1975