McPutin’s — the cheekily-named pop-up operating out of Russian Samovar on W52nd Street — is immediately rebranding after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine turned their satiric homage sour.
“The name was a little bit of comic relief, that was my intention,” said McPutin’s founder Sasha V. “With every terrible thing, there’s comic relief, and everybody thought it was cute and a niche, and it wasn’t so serious. And then over time with all the news, I was getting a little iffy about the name. Last night I put my foot down and said, ‘I can’t do this, I can’t support it’,” added Sasha, who plans to rename the popular take-out joint Chi Chi Chicken after a childhood pet.
Sasha, who grew up in the US, has family ties to the current conflict — her mother, Vlada, is Russian and her father is Ukrainian. Vlada owns and operates longtime neighborhood institution Russian Samovar (256 W52nd St — east of 8th Ave), which has served as a homing beacon for New York’s Russian and Ukrainian expats for 35 years.
“We are big part of the Russian communities,” said Sasha, noting that between Samovar, the Russian Vodka Room (located across from Samovar), and their two pop-up concepts (McPutin’s and Dumplings and Crepes), “our corner at 52nd Street and 8th Avenue is pretty Russian.”
Originally a Midtown Rat Pack haunt called Jilly’s Canteen, Russian Samovar opened in 1987 and became known citywide as a hub for Russian and Ukrainian culture. The Samovar effuses a lively, convivial vibe, immortalized in a famous episode of Sex and the City where Mikhail Baryshnikov’s character takes Carrie Bradshaw to a 1am dinner date at the restaurant (in real life, Baryshnikov is an investor and regular there). As Sasha described it: “If you’ve ever been on a weeknight, everybody just kind of gathers together, and it’s like one big wholesome family.”
But the COVID-19 pandemic would grind the party to a screeching halt, leaving the dining room at Russian Samovar closed and the staff unsure of its future. Sasha, who had been considering the concept of bite-sized Chicken Kiev for several years, found herself furloughed from her day job, “and I just put two and two together — I said, ‘I have the time, let’s do this’.” After six months of recipe development, McPutin’s pop-up takeout spot opened out of Russian Samovar’s kitchen in September 2020, drawing enough popularity for Sasha to open a second location on Utica Avenue in Brooklyn.
The paint had barely dried on the Brooklyn outpost of McPutin’s this week before news of the invasion broke, as President Vladimir Putin sent troops into Kyiv early Thursday morning. Sasha and the staff at Russian Samovar were devastated. “To see my two countries at war like this, it’s so unsettling,” said Sasha, adding that she has extended family in both Russia and the Ukraine who have reported back the fear and tension pervading both nations.
“Our staff at Russian Samovar is mostly Ukrainian and from Belarus,” said Sasha. “One staff member, our waitress — her parents are over in the first city that was attacked, and they were woken up at 5:30 in the morning and they are in a bunker now, still sheltering in place. So that’s how they woke up, and she is over here freaking out, so it’s really tough. I have chills running down my spine right now talking about it.”
Sasha plans to use the restaurant’s reach to share details of the invasion and encourage advocacy for peace in Ukraine. “I’m going to put out a statement apologizing for the name, and McPutin’s Instagram is going to be more about spreading awareness,” said Sasha. Over at Russian Samovar, signs supporting Ukraine as well as Ukrainian and Russian flags are being installed as a show of solidarity, and Sasha plans to attend expat gatherings and protests around town.
And as for McPutin’s? Sasha is embracing the restaurant’s “whole new name — and we won’t ever look back in that direction.”