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New Russian cuisine: a gastronomic revolution in St Petersburg

New Russian cuisine: a gastronomic revolution in St Petersburg

by Laura Martin 21 October 2019

Laura Martin travels to the Russian city and discovers a thriving contemporary food scene that's reinvigorating the country's cuisine and shining an international spotlight on a new generation of chefs.

It’s dinner time in Saint Petersburg on a Friday night. On the menu tonight, as you might expect, there’s beetroot and potatoes. But at Hamlet + Jacks restaurant, situated a few minutes walk from the iconic Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, these traditional ingredients have been turned on their heads.

A plate with a generous slice of a plump purple tart on is put down in front of me. Next to it sits a little pot of what looks like whipped cream. The waitress then pulls out a blowtorch and ignites it. Just as I’m getting a little concerned with the rasp of the blue-white fire being launched mere inches from my face, she turns it on the little dish of cream and in a few seconds, a few leopard-like spots begin to brown the surface, before it is well and truly bruleed.

‘This is the signature dish on our menu,’ says Natalya Zemlyanik, the marketing director at the restaurant who is joining me for the ‘10,000 kilometres’ tasting menu – a culinary trip around the nation in seven courses. ‘It’s beetroot cheesecake with potato ice cream. We like to have fun with classic Russian ingredients and play about with them; it’s my favourite dish.’ I dig in with my spoon, and with a mouthful of the creamy, sweet and slightly earthy tart, I’m inclined to agree with her.

St Petersburg, with a population of 4.9 million, is a city steeped in history; of grand tsars, epic cultural talents and the power of the people. Formerly the Russian capital – it switched to Moscow in 1918 – it was the launch place of the Russian Revolution in 1917, came under siege in World War II and survived the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. However, over the past few years, there's been another quiet revolution taking place in the city: and it’s taking place on plates.

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Hamlet + Jacks is one of the restaurants pushing St Petersburg's food scene forward
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The dishes take traditional Russian ingredients and flavours and reinvent them in an exciting, contemporary way

It’s been dubbed New Russian cuisine, amid a flurry of exciting young chefs firing up the pans in independent kitchens, and it’s all about celebrating classic Russian produce in a modern way.

‘Russians are finally getting pleasure from eating, rather than just seeing it as sustenance,’ Zemlyanik explains. She’s a born-and-bred Saint Petersburger, a self-professed foodie and like her friends, eats out about four or five times a week and can often be found in the restaurant's lively sister venue, Wine Rack, which celebrates Russian-produced wines.

‘There’s a real home-grown culture here, plus opportunities for entrepreneurs and chefs to start their own businesses, which is why younger people are choosing to stay in the city. In the past, they might have been tempted to move to Moscow, or abroad, but why would we move anywhere else, when it’s all happening here now?’

For chef Hezret-Arslan Berdiev – originally from Dashoguz, in northern Turkmenistan – the reverse was true, as he was enticed to Saint Petersburg by its lively food scene. A few streets east, by the picturesque eighteenth century Summer Garden, is his restaurant Birch, where the mission is ‘not to feed just the stomach, but the heart and soul too’. His menu fuses Russian staples with a nod to his time spent cooking across Asia, with a twelve-course tasting menu purposefully placed at the extremely pocket-friendly price point of just 2,500 roubles (around £30). I’m lucky to get a table, as bagging a reservation on one of the Scandi-style bar stools is often a tricky task, thanks to its popularity – the petite restaurant regularly does 240 covers a day since launching in 2017.

Tonight, I’m digging into delightfully fatty slivers of beef tataki with tangy pickled beetroot and ponzu sauce. Traditional dumplings – known as pelmeni, and usually filled with beef, pork and sour cream – have been given a seafood makeover, stuffed with delicate minced prawns and drowned with a rich crab bisque and coconut espuma. It’s all a deliciously far cry from what might have been on menus even just twenty years ago.

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Birch combines Russian and Asian flavours – a pairing rarely seen
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Head chef Hezret-Arslan Berdiev moved from Turkmenistan to St Petersburg after seeing how the city's food scene was growing

Berdiev says that one of the reasons for a return to traditional, local produce is partly due to the Russian-imposed sanctions on the EU in 2014, when President Vladimir Putin signed a decree banning the import of agricultural products and food. This forced him – like others – to get increasingly creative and confident with their home-grown dishes.

In a previous interview, he explained: ‘Six years ago there weren’t really any Russian products. But now we use Russian seafood, Russian meat, Russian vegetables and homemade cheese. The embargo helps you to discover your own identity.’

He later tells me: ‘At the moment, thanks to the many forests in Russia, I'm using a lot of wild mushrooms and berries, like sea buckthorn and blackcurrant, in my cooking.’

Ivan Stupachenko from St Petersburg Travel Guide agrees, and says the sanctions have definitely had a knock-on effect to the dining scene. ‘Really, before the sanctions arrived, we had been buying almost everything of foreign origin, even vegetables. Before 2014, you wouldn’t really find any restaurants promoting their dedication to locally produced ingredients. Also, more and more people want to eat healthier food that isn’t filled with chemicals. Local producers often focus on the fact that they produce ecologically clean and fresh food.’

Berdiev adds: ‘Five years ago we had completely different restaurants here, where you wouldn’t get any gastronomic experience. Nowadays it's very different. Every year there are more restaurants, more chefs; it has gone to a completely different level.’

Elsewhere in the city, there are full tables at restaurants like the former bohemian theatre hangout The Repa with its ‘Return to the Roots’ set menu; Duo Gastrobar, run by Dimitrii Blinov, Russian GQ’s chef of the year; and Mansarda, a rooftop-level space that is literally elevating dishes like borscht. There might only be an estimated 6,000 restaurants here, but there are enough exciting chefs at their helm to create a global buzz with their cooking. Saint Petersburg (and the rest of Russia) isn’t covered by the Michelin Guide, but if the tyre company does decide to expand into the country, the city would certainly be the most likely place to gain some stars.

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New Russian dishes are often presented in very artistic and creative ways
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The movement was given a boost after European food imports were banned in 2014, forcing chefs to look at what was available locally

These chefs and the burgeoning food scene are celebrated each June, as they have been incorporated into the city’s famous White Nights season. It’s a must-see time of year to visit, as outdoor parties are held in the decaying beauty of palaces that pepper the regal city, and all the guests – dressed in mandatory white – go long into the twenty-four-hour sun of midsummer nights.

All the restaurants above and almost forty more are part of Gourmet Days, the city’s annual two-week celebration of their unique food culture, which has been running since 2017. It’s essentially a fortnight-long banquet for locals and visitors to get their teeth into the city’s offerings. 2019’s outing included food tours and crawls, industry talks, chef collaborations and special set-price tasting menus. It also looks to the future with the New Names party, a sort of crystal-ball event predicting the next movers and shakers in the New Russian gastronomic world.

Alena Melnikova, CEO of Gourmet Days, tells me that it’s a natural progression for the city to host an ambitious event like this and adds that the city’s passion for food goes way back into history. ‘It’s great that Saint Petersburg is getting more and more awareness internationally. The city has such a unique spirit, mood and character and even before the Revolution and Soviet period, it was one of the most developed cities in terms of dining and restaurants. People prefer to eat out instead of eating at home, and I’ve seen a rise in the restaurants with what I call ‘creative comfort’ or New Russian food on their menus.’

She adds that it’s the spirit of the people behind this new wave of cooking that’s making headlines: ‘We have so many great chefs to be proud of at the moment who are creating a new history of local gastronomy.’

My whistlestop foodie tour of this enchanting city is almost at an end, so it seems only right to finish it the proper way: with a traditional shot of vodka and a bite of a sharp and salty pickle. I pop into the busy candle-lit Orthodox bar, just one of the many cocktail joints around the hip Rubinstein Street.

‘Can I suggest you try Dostoevsky's The White Nights?’ the bartender asks me. Always happy for a tip-off, I’m presented with an expertly mixed vodka, apple shrub, honey and pickle juice that will serve perfectly as a nightcap. The drink is like the cuisine I’ve experienced on my trip: one foot firmly in the past, one foot facing forwards. One thing’s for sure, for Saint Petersburg’s New Russian food scene, the time is now.

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