By far the most honored guest of the Samovar was Brodsky, another friend from Leningrad. It was he who saved the restaurant with money from his Nobel Prize in Literature and recruited Mr. Baryshnikov to help. Mr. Kaplan set aside a bench for him: table 16, in the back. The old pianist of the Samovar, Alexander Izbitser, a graduate of the Leningrad Conservatory, knew how to play quieter when the gentle Brodsky was there, the more easily people could hear what he was saying.
Once Brodsky marked the menu of the Samovar with his rhymes. (“You shall not go astray/With Russian herring” was one.) He also wrote about Mr. Kaplan in verse, both serious and silly.
Winter! Tonight in NYC
It is by far colder than the moon.
Best vodka and sweet caviar
Should warm us up – where else to be?
But Kaplan’s Russian Samovar?
Mr. Kaplan’s diplomatic skills were legendary, but there were limits. One evening, he watched helplessly as Brodsky rejected an overture by the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who partially blamed Brodsky for his forced exile, believing Yevtushenko had been compromised by his ties to the Soviet regime.
For years, habitués and visitors wrote entries—poems, prose poems, drawings, scribbles—into the scrapbooks Mr. Kaplan kept. At an auction in Moscow in 2018, Russian oligarch Alexander Mamut paid $230,000 for the collection, repatriating a generation of Russian creativity.
“Roman is our Rick,” Russian writer Solomon Volkov once said, referring to Humphrey Bogart’s restorer in “Casablanca.” Rick rarely drank with guests, but Mr. Kaplan invariably did, mixing them with his signature homemade vodkas (which include horseradish, coriander, dill, and various fruit flavors). His penchant for checking checks nearly sank the place.
For someone who nearly starved to death during the wartime siege of Leningrad, running a restaurant presented unique challenges, such as his disgust at wasted food. Mr. Kaplan’s frostbite during the war left him both limp and impatient for pettiness. Polish émigré writer Irena Grudzinka Gross recalled that Mr. Kaplan once took off his shoe to show a condescending professor where his toes had been.