Course By Course ‘A La Russe’
Throw out any preconceptions of Russian cuisine when you head to the country’s original imperial capital, St Petersburg, often dubbed the Venice of the North. With culinary traditions inherited from Scandinavian, Mongol, Germanic and, of course, French cuisine, if you do your research, like we have, then you are destined to eat like a tsar at extremely reasonable prices. It’s the Russians we have to thank for bringing course by course service ‘à la Russe’ to France in the early 19th century, before the trend spread like wildfire across Europe, so they must know a thing or two about dining in style.
Like many Orthodox cultures, Russian cuisine reaches its peak at Easter, but from what we’ve seen over the midsummer White Nights, when the sun hardly ever sets, there’s no need to wait so long.
So what culinary delights can you expect to savour? Start with a selection of zakuskas or salted, piquant hors-d’oeuvres – anything from cured, smoked fish and pickled vegetables to more modern-day pâtés and terrines. For main courses, venison, veal and duck are popular fodder – not stewed beyond recognition, but seared with subtle flavours and without an ounce of dill. Needless to say, you’ll be swimming in locally caught fresh fish – salmon and herring in particular are plentiful as is smelt, a small silvery marine fish with delicate flesh from the salmon family. So popular is this fish, it has had its own smelt festival since the early 18th century heralding the start of spring when the catch is at its height. Savour it lightly pan-fried in hazelnut butter.
With Russia producing 1,800 tonnes a year of caviar, ten times as much as Iran, you can’t help but indulge in this pricey delicacy of sturgeon’s eggs, salted and allowed to mature. Beluga is the most expensive and produced by the largest species – look out for a pitch black pearly sheen – followed by Ossetra (golden yellow) and then Sevruga (light to dark grey). But don’t be fooled into sampling so-called ‘red caviar’ – it’s nothing but salmon eggs.
Naturally you won’t be going carb-free here – starch is everywhere, from freshly baked breads like the balabouchki, which is sour dough and divine doughnuts, to the world-famous Russian savoury crepe, the blini, whose recipe we share here. And you’re sure to find potatoes; cooked in their jackets, then peeled and fried with the likes of herring or garlic cloves.
Tea drinking is a Russian ritual with the samovar bubbling away on hot coals all day long, concocting a very strong black tea that is usually served unsweetened but, thanks to a thriving bee-keeping industry, made up for by the accompanying honey cake.
Authentic Russian aside, you will also find plenty of restaurants specialising in Caucasian cuisine with dishes originating in Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia – the last, the more prevalent. Bordered by the Black Sea and Turkey to the South, Georgian cuisine benefits from the region’s fertile soil and warm, sunny climate so perusing a menu, you will recognise many a flavour and culinary inspiration from the Mediterranean and Middle East – lamb cooked on skewers à la shashlik, or macerated with spices and garlic before being dried to make bastourma.
For more on specific dishes, check out our Gourmet guide on where to eat in the first Soviet capital – after you’ve booked your flights of course. Or else try your culinary hand at our tummy-filling traditional Russian recipes including borscht and dill pickles. Either way, as they’d say in Russia, priyatnogo appetita!
Top dining picks
Mix by Alain Ducasse at the W
If you can’t get to Alain Ducasse’s three Michelin-star restaurants in Paris, London or Monaco, then his franchised offering Mix, at the boutique W hotel in St Petersburg’s affluent Admiralty district, is a must for local Russian produce prepared à la Francaise, yet with a creative twist. Compact, cosy and contemporary with a light brasserie feel, opt for à la carte or the very well-priced six-course discovery menu (Dhs300) which we can personally vouch for – the sublime green asparagus risotto in particular. After dinner, head for a nightcap upstairs at Mixup, the stunning terrace overlooking St Isaac’s Cathedral and while away the hours until sunset... which could be well past midnight during White Nights. And whilst you’re there, grab a plush room and stay the night.
Pop into Café Singer for some respite from the hustle and bustle of Nevsky Prospekt. Gawp at the stunning Kazan Cathedral from a prime window seat, whilst indulging in caviar and blinis, topped with smetana (sour cream), chopped egg, red onions and chives.
INFO: +7 812 571 82 83
Named after the famed Dostoyevsky novel, The Idiot sits in a house on the Moyka canal. Head underground to uncover a haphazard, homely interior with mismatched antique furniture, oil paintings and defunct electrical paraphernalia. Try the imaginative Russian smoked herring ‘sushi’ substituting blinis for rice.
You simply cannot leave St Petersburg without dabbling in Georgian cuisine at the city’s most authentic joint by the name of Hochu Harcho (spelt rather differently in Cyrillic). Dare we say the strong Middle Eastern influence is evident as soon as you walk in, and meander upstairs to the open plan kitchen with the chefs tossing bread. Start with suluguni cheese – pickled with a slightly sour, salty flavour – served fried with tomatoes. Move onto succulent shashlik kebabs, which are served on the skewer with a side order of potatoes baked in their skin with lard.
INFO: +7 812 310 32 36.
Crossing the Neva River to Petrograd, head for Russian cuisine at hidden gem Mari Vanna. You’ll be transported into a traditional Russian abode adorned with trinkets, stacking dolls and literature, all hidden among the chintz and chandeliers. It’s a little reminiscent of Dubai’s Shakespeare’s and Co. Start with the pirogi, a traditional Russian savoury pastry with a variety of fillings – so moreish we ordered the cabbage and egg filling for dessert. The lightly pan-fried veal fillets served with diced boiled potatoes sprinkled with dill, makes for an excellent main course. So successful is the operation, the owners have opened outposts in London, New York and Moscow.
Grand Hotel Europe by Orient-Express
The Grand Terrace at St Petersburg’s imposing Grand Hotel is the place to sample smelt fish dishes in spring – smelt bread included.
INFO: +7 812 329 6000, www.grandhoteleurope.com.
INFO: Emirates operates daily return flights to St Petersburg from Dubai, www.emirates.com. Most nationalities need tourist visas in advance, check with your local Russian consulate. St Petersburg Tourism Information Bureau www.visit-petersburg.ru.