Tuesday, February 10, 2009
"I THINK it's around here..." Ksenya turned down an alley filled with parked cars, past a block-long window photo mural of a model reclining on a beach and down into the wide street, filled with rocks where pavement once sat. When I made it to the street and saw the expanse of stones, silent tractors like sleeping dinosaurs, pedestrians hopping pavement river stones to a Russian McDonalds on the other side, for an instant I felt like I was in post-war Berlin, and expected the buzz of air fleets overhead. But no, this was just part of the rampant revitalization of St. Petersburg's Historic Heart, where I had just arrived from the airport, jetlagged as all hell (I couldn't sleep on the plane - they were showing Sex & the City when I was supposed to be napping!). Ksenya was trying to remember where this Georgian restaurant was, a feat already impressive to me as the Cyrillic street names posted on the corners of buildings and minimal signage left me helpless. "Here it is!" Ksenya stepped down and through an unmarked brown door into Kavkaz (18 Karavannaya ul. Tel: 312-1665 M: Nevsky Prospekt)an empty sub-level tavern with tiled floors and bare wooden tables. I self-conciously murmured my first memorized Russian word "spasiba" (thank you) to the young waitress who motioned for us to seat ourselves. I was fading fast and hoped we would get to our host's home before too long, but was happy to accept the tall pilsner beer set in front of me. "What's good here?" I asked Ksenya, who spent her childhood only blocks from the Hermitage Museum, in this same neighborhood. "I don't know.. I can't really read most of this menu," my fluent Russian friend responded. I realized though I was very lucky exploring Russia with a native (Ksenya and her mother fled St. P for Rome by-way-of Vienna when she was 8 years old), no plan is fool-proof - interpreting every flowery word in a menus' description can be a struggle even for someone who knows the written language fairly well. "OH okay," her finger stopped on a page. "These are soup dumplings of some meaty kind." I gulped my beer. "Sold!"
Dining out in St. Petersburg is without a doubt an adventure. A question of "Do we go to the hunting place for bear steaks or the Dagestani place for.. Dagestani food?" Even fast food (despite the prevalence of some mass burger chains) provided a curious change, the blini being the most ubiquitous and inexpensive. Teremok easily dominates the city, kiosks outposted on every other corner in the city center (interestingly born from the 1998 financial crisis). Prices for most of the blinis range from 30 to 80 rubles ($2-4), depending on the filling. Ksenya and I shared one filled with a warm and gooey walnut/brown sugar concoction. A perfect afternoon blood sugar pick-me-up turned supper spoiler. Another afternoon for an early lunch we hit Bliny Domik (8 Kolokolnaya ul. Tel: 812-327-8979 M: Vladimirskaya), a homey, pocket-sized cafe serving up blinis, soups and Russian salads (generally consisting of creamy julienned veggies and proteins, similar to American slaws or potato salads). Despite a favorable recommendation, we found the blinis (slightly more expensive than the kiosks) underwhelming at best. For such simple fare, stick to the streets.
One chain that really won me over from day one was Stolle (a 'stolle' is a traditional Saxon Christmas cake), a family of "pie cafés" (boy do I love this concept). Popping up in the heart of every prominent neighborhood in the city, including down the block from Katya's apartment, Ksenya and I found ourselves sipping espresso and sampling pie more than a couple of times... Baked in gorgeously ornate large sheet loafs and served warm from the oven, the pirogis (pies) run in several varieties, both sweet and savory, and available by the slice for dine-in, or whole for take-out. On our way to Katya's the first evening, we picked up a large cheese-filled pie (a ricotta-like cheesecake-dense semi-sweet filling) as an offering, which ended up working its way into our breakfast for most of the week. On other occasions we sampled the red whortleberry and apple of the sweet, and a cabbage and rabbit with mushroom from the savory. I can't tell you enough how delightful the rabbit pie was.. Tender and flavorful white meat with plump mushrooms, fresh herbs and a flakey buttery crust. Incredible!
Coffee shops (yes, even sans pie) are very popular in the city, the largest chain Кофе Хауз (literally "Coffee House", translated phonetically) is treading near Starbucks ubiquity.. Yet the espresso wasn't half bad! The most delicious café drinks we had were at an odd little spot called Café Chocolat in the medieval village of Novgorod that we daytripped to. This place was decorated like an ode to silver screen romantic cinema, with sappy framed b/w posters the likes of Audrey Hepburn and the Eiffel Tower over red walls. They actually had an English version of the menu, which was curiously extensive, especially in the realm of specialty coffee drinks and cocktails. I had a rum-spiked twist on a Spanish coffee that was tasty, but it was Ksenya's tar-thick spicy molten chili hot chocolate that blew me away. About half way through she picked up her spoon to finish it. To accompany our "drinks" we ordered the cottage cheese cakes to split (Ksenya's own have always been a favorite of mine). The small cakes were drizzled with evaporated milk, dusted with cinnamon and served with carmelized bananas. Tasty, but Ksenya's still win in my book.
After a full afternoon spent exploring the gorgeous and surreal Kremlin fortress, multiplex of churches, foot bridge and man-made "beach" along the Volga river.. we were famished. We decided to take a chance on the most talked-about restaurant in the area (that we feared would be a tourist trap), actually built INSIDE Pokrovskaya tower (above) of the Kremlin walls and sharing the name Detinets with the fortress (Kremlin, Pokrovskaya Tower, Novgorod Tel: 816-227-4624). To our delight, the interior was incredible on its own (as we were not allowed inside any other part of the Kremlin interior). Worried about making to our bus in time to make it back to St. P, we opted for the downstairs casual café instead of the formal dining room up a massive wood spiral staircase (never did get to peek up there, darn it). We were led down through a brick tunnel which opened up into a dark domed cavern lit by hanging lanterns. There were a couple of alcoves halfway up the wall with single tables nestled into them and small wooden steps leading up. Naturally we asked to sit in one of the cubbies and clambered up excitedly. The menu was traditional Russian and extremely inexpensive. I ordered a large bowl of borscht and a mug of house-made Kvass (fermented mildly alcoholic beverage made from rye bread), Ksenya opted for a pelmeni dumpling soup. The food arrived in clay pots with cumbersome (though adorable) painted wooden spoons and a mountain of sliced rye bread. I have had borscht in the past, but this was the real deal, and an incredibly rich and fresh treat. The beets were earthy(duh), tender yet crisp and complimented the salty pork bits and other vegetables nicely in the yummy broth. Such a simple thing, done right can be remarkably impressive. Ksenya's dumpling soup was equally winning. We were sponging the bowls with the rye bread before I even took a photo for the blog. "Here.. we'll fake it" Ksenya said, arranging the napkins, bowls and spoons to look sumptously consumed. I laughed and snapped a shot, filling our little cave with light for the first time. We hated to leave, but shimmied down and out and across the Kremlin court in the direction of the bus station.
It was a chilly night returning to Petrogradsky disctrict - the neighborhood where we stayed, over the Neva River from the Historic Heart of St. Petersburg. Ksenya was taking me to a Parisian style café she had found with coworkers the week before I arrived. As we walked down the high-end shop lined street, I got a striking sense of familiarity - the comparative tendency that I think allows us all to feel more comfortable in foreign surroundings. "This must be like, the SoHo of St. P..." I said as more designer storefronts appeared on the horizon. Expensively dressed women in tailored jackets and skintight heeled boots stalked up and down the sidewalks. "Or maybe Upper East Side?..." We turned onto a dark side street and approached the red awnings of the French wine bistro, Les Amis De Jean-Jacques (Bolshoy pr 54/2 Tel: 812-232-9981 M: Petrogradskaya). It was cozy and very Parisian inside.. a banquette lined the red walls and small marble tables filled the candle-lit room, all reflected in the chic mirror-tiled ceiling. When I held the menu, I remember feeling a sense of relief when I saw the menu was in French as well as Russian. Imagine the absurdity! (As I don't speak French either.. but am MUCH better at figuring out a menu in it than Cyrillic). The wine list was extensive, and the first I'd seen. I ordered a glass of Bordeaux and French onion soup, followed by a Croque Madame. Everything was delicious and surprisingly authentic.. The soup was chockful with soggy baquette and covered in massive amounts of melted swiss. The croque wore a perfect poached egg and a sprinkling of chopped dill. I could have sat here all night, fighting my cold with wine and inhaling second-hand smoke while doodling with crayons on the butcherwrap covering the tables. But alas our jetlag begged for bed, and so we walked back along the dark store windows, half expecting to see a yellow cab cruise past.
After Georgian, the Caucasian cuisine that seemed the most available (and recommended) in St. Petersburg was Dagestani... A cuisine I admit had never even crossed my mind. Therefore, having no idea what to expect, one evening Ksenya and I searched out Sumeta (ul Yefimova 5, Sennaya; Tel:812-310-2411 M: Sadovaya). A neon gateway greeted us as we stepped down a stone brick stairway into a dim, loud dining room with a roaring fireplace and a giant lit-up fountain covering one wall. Every table appeared full, and the host let us know it would be a wait.. Unless, of course, we wouldn't mind the non-smoking room in the back... Laughing, we accepted - to the host's utter surprise. She led us through a rocky crag in the wall and we were sat in a cozy cave alongside a large loud group drunkenly celebrating. Ksenya and I smiled, feeling like THIS was how our Dagestani dining experience should probably play out. Everything on the menu sounded delicious and we were famished, so decided to make this our "big" night to course, and really do it right. We ordered a bottle of Putinka vodka and соления дагестанские (Dagestan pickles) to start, properly. After some toasts alonside our rowdy neighbors and savoring the perfectly pickled cucumbers, spicy peppers and shoots of some kind (reminded me of carnation stems - but delicious!), we ordered чудустыквой (Chudu with pumpkin). Chudu is like a large crispy "pancake" (somewhere between a pastry quesadilla and cheese naan). It is greasy and rich, filled with a savory spiced pumpkin puree and served warm, cut into pieces. Sounds simple, but Ksenya and I were both impressed with how tasty and complex the flavors actually were (and is one of the main dishes now that I can't stop thinking about and craving!) After more vodka we ordered some курзе (Kurze- Dagestan pelmenis), which were delicious pierogi-like meat dumplings in a light garlic sauce. Then we were ready for the люля (Lulya Kebab), which is basically my new favorite thing ever. Imagine coarsely ground beef and lamb spiced and mixed with fresh herbs, formed around a kebab and grilled over flame to perfection, served with crispy fried potatoes and fresh vegetables, all covered with chopped herbs and onions, with a spicy ketchup-like tomato sauce on the side. In summary: A super moist perfect burger on a stick with crispy fries! After stuffing ourselves and finishing the last of the vodka, Ksenya and I ordered espresso and the traditional dessert, which was sadly just a few scoops of ice cream with chopped candied fruit bits and a cherry. In all honesty, I didn't need it though. Our neighbors were up and dancing at this point, and we were pleasantly pickled ourselves. The meal had already lasted almost two hours and we were not feeling rushed in the least. We wondered if the more popular smoking room up front was having as much fun, but certain they weren't.
Next: We take to the streets and get our drink on, the Russian way!