St. Petersburg: Chic Setting for Russian Cuisine

Waiter at Restoran i i

Just across the Neva River from St. Petersburg's sprawling Winter Palace, Restoran serves classic Russian fare such as borscht and bliny. Courtesy Restoran hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Restoran
Waiter at Restoran

Just across the Neva River from St. Petersburg's sprawling Winter Palace, Restoran serves classic Russian fare such as borscht and bliny.

Courtesy Restoran
Dining room at Restoran i i

Housed in a building of the former Imperial Academy of Sciences, Restoran occupies a long hall in which generations of doctoral students defended their dissertations. Courtesy Restoran hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Restoran
Dining room at Restoran

Housed in a building of the former Imperial Academy of Sciences, Restoran occupies a long hall in which generations of doctoral students defended their dissertations.

Courtesy Restoran

When the Bolsheviks moved Russia's capital from St. Petersburg to Moscow after the 1917 Revolution, they turned the city's nature on its head. Overnight, the extravagant baroque projection of imperial might became an exquisite architectural museum, preserved by decades of neglect under Soviet rule.

Among the institutions transplanted from the czarist showcase of Western influence back to Moscow was the Imperial Academy of Sciences, first ordered into existence by the city's founder, Peter the Great, after his visit to the Paris Academy in 1717.

Just across the Neva River from St. Petersburg's sprawling Winter Palace, one of the academy's former buildings on Vasilievsky Island now houses my favorite place to eat in the city. Called simply Restoran, this elegant restaurant stands on a narrow side street opposite Kuntskamera, Russia's first museum.

Restoran occupies a long, first-floor hall in which generations of doctoral students orally defended their dissertations. It is said the hall's acoustics enable listeners at its far end to hear someone speaking softly under the main vaulted arch, but in fact, diners' conversations don't carry unreasonably far beyond their tables.

Despite its grand setting, Restoran's interior is anything but baroque. Its neutral-colored walls, gilt-framed mirrors, rough-hewn wood floors and linen-covered chairs present a chic minimalism. Even in the depths of dark and icy winter, it feels light and airy inside, and cozy when the fireplace is lit. It's a welcome change from the usual neon disco or overbearing Empire styles for which most upscale St. Petersburg establishments aim. The atmosphere is pleasantly relaxed, and the well-trained wait staff can give exhaustive suggestions, in Russian and English.

Restoran was launched in 2000 by the company that brought Placido Domingo to the debut of its Backstage restaurant next to the famed Mariinsky Theatre. The cuisine at Restoran is a fancified version of classic Russian, and although some of chef Dmitri Kravchuk's menu can be heavy and combinations not entirely harmonious, some dishes are as good as you'll get anywhere.

For starters, there's salted herring ($10), bliny with red salmon caviar — or black caviar (which costs a whopping $76) — and delicious pelmeni ($10), Russian dumplings with beef, lamb, salmon or other fillings.

The soups are among the best appetizers, including borscht and a divine version of kharcho, a spicy lamb soup with rice. Another traditional dish is grechka, Russian buckwheat groats with either mushrooms or chicken.

Entrees — which range between about $20 and $40 — include tabaka, a flattened fried chicken dish from the southern Caucasus Mountains regions, which is moist and served with fruit and tkemali plum sauce. Venison in red wine is gamy and tender. Fish includes steamed trout and Murmansk-style cod, baked with potatoes, tomatoes and mushrooms.

The wine list includes a modest selection of French and Italian bottles. But Russian food should be eaten with vodka — or better yet, Restoran's own homemade liquor flavored with anise, pepper, horseradish, garlic or my favorite, cranberry. It's highly potent and deceptively smooth-tasting. Also delicious are a tart, cranberry juice called mors and kvas, a non-alcoholic, beer-like drink.

For dessert, try the syrniki, sweet dumplings with sour cream and jam, or bliny with apples, honey and cranberries.

With a typical meal for two costing just over $100, Restoran's crowd is a mix of well-to-do Russians and foreigners — those who can afford to dine out well in a mostly poor city that still has the largest concentration of Soviet-era communal apartments in Russia. After your meal, you can wander back across the Winter Palace bridge toward the city center, which the country's vast oil wealth is only just beginning to change.

Restoran — 2 Tamozhennyi Pereulok, St. Petersburg, Russia. Telephone: 7 812 327 8979. Open daily noon to midnight; major credit cards accepted.

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