As many traveling culinarians know, it can be hard to convince the locals to show you the real gastronomic deal when you’re in a new place. This is especially true when the locals in question are aware that you're a chef from a big city. Inevitably, my contacts want to bring me to the fanciest, hippest place in town—the joint that's serving food that is least like the food people grow up eating in the region. This is, to put it mildly, not what I'm looking for. (I live in New York, dammit! If I want to find a happenin' new bôite serving yuzu-marinated chickens' teeth in a paprika sauce, I can do that at home).
What I'm always interested in (as my first post made clear) is the traditional stuff, but the perception, often, is that this is boring, ordinary food and couldn't possibly be interesting to me. My first trip to Japan was exactly like this: After the second night of fancy French food, I pleaded, "Can I please sit on a street corner and eat some yakitori, go to karaoke, then drink soju with some salarymen?"
The look of horror on my hosts’ faces was not easily forgotten.
So, when we planned our time in St. Petersburg, I started early. We hired a private guide and told her that, in addition to museums and palaces, we also wanted to go to food markets, cafés and restaurants serving typical local cuisine. In other words, we did not want to go to the hottest place in town and eat the trendiest food available—which is, in case you’re wondering, sushi, a food suddenly available in every restaurant in the central city, including coffee shops. No: I wanted beets and vodka. It took three very insistent explanatory e-mails before Eugenia believed me. But when she got it, she really got it.
She took us (over our driver's objections: I think he was thinking sushi) to a place called Chekov in the serene, upscale neighborhood of Petropavlovskaja. The place was kitted out like a turn-of-the-century Russian dacha—which sounds kitcshy, I know, but in fact it was exactly as laid-back beautiful as the most laid-back beautiful Russian dacha of your dreams, with a high, pitched roof, old summer-style wooden tables and cupboards, and lots of cushions and curtains at the tables (plus copies of Chekov’s books everywhere). The place was filled with an affluent crowd enjoying a casual Sunday dinner: extended families and well-dressed couples from the neighborhood. And the food was exactly what I was after: herring with pickled onions; sauerkraut soup; pickled wild Finnish mushrooms with sour cream; an Uzbek-style lamb in pastry; cloudberry strudel. Everything was fresh and clean-tasting, more complex and interesting than any Russian food I’ve ever had in the States. Russian dishes are meant to complement the stuff you drink with them, and we had plenty of that, all housemade: horseradish vodka; wild cherry vodka; bitter beer; mors (a non-alcoholic cranberry cocktail, for which every family and restaurant has its own recipe); and kvass, one of the strangest beverages I’ve ever tasted—a thick, medieval-looking and thoroughly delicious brown drink made from fermented rye bread and honey.
Our guide, Eugenia, insisted that her mother’s cooking is even better than the stuff they serve at Chekov. We're putting her mother's kitchen at the top of the itinerary the next time we’re in town.
Have you been to St. Petersburg lately, and what were your gastronomic/wine experiences?
Jim Stewart — Dallas , Tx — July 30, 2007 1:17pm ET
Russell Quong — Sunnyvale, CA — August 20, 2007 1:51am ET
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