Roman Kaplan, Restaurateur and Host for Soviet Exiles, Dies at 83

Brodsky, a friend from Leningrad, was the Samovar’s most esteemed guest. He used the money from his Nobel Prize for Literature to save the restaurant, and he enlisted Mr. Baryshnikov to help him.

Mr. Kaplan reserved Table 16 in the rear for him. As a Leningrad Conservatory graduate, the Samovar’s longstanding pianist, Alexander Izbitser, understood to play more gently when the soft-spoken Brodsky was in the room.

Once Brodsky had written his rhymes on the Samovar’s menu. When it comes to Russian herring, you can’t go wrong. Both serious and lighthearted verses were written about Mr. Kaplan by the poet.

Winter! Tonight in New York City

You can’t even imagine how cold it is here.

vodka and caviar for you and yours

Should be able to warm us up — if not here?

What about Kaplan’s Russian Samovar, though?

Mr. Kaplan had legendary diplomatic skills, but they had their limits. The poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, whom Brodsky blamed in part for his forced exile, spurned an offer from Brodsky one night, believing Yevtushenko had been compromised by his ties to the Soviet regime.

Scrapbooks held by Mr. Kaplan for years have been filled with poems, prose poems, drawings, and doodles by regulars and tourists alike. Russian oligarch Alexander Mamut paid $230,000 for the collection at a Moscow auction in 2018, and a generation of Russian innovation was returned to the country of origin.

To paraphrase the Russian writer Solomon Volkov, Humphrey Bogart’s restaurant owner Ricky in “Casablanca,” Roman is our Rick.

Kaplan’s signature handmade vodkas were always on hand for guests, although Rick rarely drank with them (coming in horseradish, cilantro, dill and various fruit flavors, among others). His proclivity for cashing checks came dangerously close to bankrupting the business.

Having nearly starved during the siege of Leningrad, he had a unique perspective on running a restaurant because of his aversion to wasted food. Mr. Kaplan’s frostbite from World War II left him with a limp and an aversion to small talk.

Kaplan once removed his shoe in order to show a patronising lecturer where his toes had gone, according to Irena Grudzinka Gross, the Polish émigré writer.