Thursday, January 22, 2009

Reindeer and Caviar and Borscht, Oh My

Greetings faithful readers (all 2 of you). Sorry for my absence, but I swear, more international travel was to blame. This time, to Russia! And surrounding lands. In the dead of winter.

The cuisine in these often cold and bitter lands is perhaps what you'd expect -- hearty, with an emphasis on carbohydrates and meat. Meat like reindeer, pictured left, which was surprisingly good. Expecting it to taste like venison, I was surprised to taste what I would have sworn was really good beef. Served on top of delicious mashed potatoes with lingonberries on the side, I was sufficiently warmed to return to the frigid, windy outdoors that awaited me.

As you may know, Russia is not known for its cuisine. Although we might be able to name a couple of signature dishes, we are not rushing to Russia to understand cutting edge food preparation or techniques. Perhaps the culture doesn't support it. At the risk of stereotyping an entire country, I found Russians to be, to put it mildly, unfriendly. Now, it was the middle of winter and sunlight was non-existent (heck, there was only daylight for about 5 hours), but nevertheless, smiles were frequently returned with frowns. The first night of my trip, we ate in the hotel restaurant, which appeared to serve either Italian or Chinese -- our choice! Strange and unsurprisingly empty.

The second night, after watching Swan Lake (okay, there may have been some sleeping instead of watching, but I swear the Hermitage is a big and tiring place!), we ventured into the Grand Hotel's restaurant that purported to serve traditional Russian cuisine. The servers were dressed in traditional clothing and in one booth, a band began gearing up to play. I did what anyone would and should do -- I ordered caviar. The waiter kindly explained to me when I tried to sample of gram of this and a gram of that that they do not serve anything less than five grams. Suspicious of this high-priced scam, I ordered five grams of Sevruga, which our waiter said often tastes like Beluga.

I direct you to the picture above right. The small mound of caviar at the top of the plate, with only slightly more, was served to me in a teaspoon on my plate. All of a sudden, the reasoning behind the five gram minimum became painfully apparent. Those grams? Not a lot. However, the caviar was amazing. With the buttery refined taste of sushi combined with a more subtle version of the popping texture of large salmon roe, it was heavenly. The fresh blinis and creme fraiche were pretty great as well.

Washing it down with Tsarskaya vodka (if I remember correctly) was a perfect accompaniment. The next course was borscht, a wonderfully warm soup made from beets. This borscht, served with a dollop of sour cream on top, hit the spot. Slices of cabbage floated in the rich broth, making my memories of endlessly walking through the snow and cold more happy and warm. As if it made sense when one could arrive at a meal like this at the end of the day.

My dining companion ordered Beef Stroganoff (we had at this point walked back and forth in front of the Stroganoff Palace several times). Our server explained the background of the dish -- General Stroganoff lost one arm in battle and, as a result, all of his food had to be cut into bite-size pieces. His chef made this dish one night to accommodate his needs. In Russia, the beef is served with any carbohydrate, like potatoes, rather than simply with noodles. This version arrived with the potatoes on the side and was reported to be delicious.

A fitting end to a long day. The band started to play and a Russian singer began belting out vaguely familiar songs. I think our server even smiled at us. All in all, a memorable meal.

The Caviar Bar & Restaurant is located in the Grand Hotel Europe, St. Petersburg, Russia,

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