Russia isn’t exactly known for its gourmet cooking. Yes, there are one or two Moscow restaurants making waves globally, thanks to the World’s 50 Best awards, but up until now, the country’s culinary offering didn’t have an international profile to speak of, beyond borscht and Russian salad.
However, a food revolution is now underway, with St Petersburg taking centre stage — it even has its own annual food festival, Gourmet Days, which took place for the second time this summer. In Russia’s second city, a wave of young chefs is thrilling both locals and visitors with their contemporary take on the country’s cuisine.
And politics has its part to play, too. Because of continuing food sanctions (there’s been a self-imposed ban on the import of food from the US and Europe, as well as some other countries) these chefs are looking closer to home, seeking out ingredients from across their vast nation, which covers both Europe and Asia, and reaches both the Pacific and Arctic Oceans, with a landscape that ranges from tundra to subtropical beach.
What they can’t buy here (or obtain via St Petersburg’s close proximity to Finland) they’re making themselves, working closely with local producers who are creating surprisingly good versions of feta, mozzarella and stracciatella, among other products.
Add to that a revival of old cooking techniques, which are being combined with new-found skills picked up on jaunts around the globe, and the result is a vibrant, creative, resourceful culinary scene.
As for why St Petersburg in particular is leading the way, Russian food writer Julia Tarnavskaya claims it’s down to the city’s namesake. “We have St Peter the Great to thank for that — he was the first to bring in foreign chefs, among them many French chefs. He’s credited with helping to develop the cuisine into what it is today,” she tells me.
One might wonder what Peter the Great would have made of the sublime Siberian venison carpaccio with onion marmalade, sea buckthorn and spruce oil I tried at Hamlet & Jacks. The dish was conceived by one of St Petersburg’s most exciting chefs, Evgeny Vikentev, who also heads up the kitchen at Vinny Shkaf, and who recently opened a restaurant in Berlin, called Cell, after a series of successful pop-ups in the German capital. The menu is split into ‘Ours’, with all ingredients sourced from Russia, and ‘Ours & Theirs’, a mix of local and (sanction-free) foreign ingredients.
“We have to break down borders with our minds,” says Evgeny, who scours Russia for ingredients, from Murmansk in the North West (“great for scallops”) to Kamchatka in Russia’s Far East (“fabulous crab”). “It’s important for us to showcase Russian ingredients in this way because we have to start developing our food culture to appeal to both Russian tastes and to the huge volumes of tourists we get here,” he adds.
Another top St Petersburg chef who trumpets Russian ingredients and techniques is Igor Zorin at Repa, which opened a couple of years ago behind the gloriously chandeliered Mariinsky Theatre. The intense turnip consommé with herbs (‘repa’ means ‘turnip’) is one of the standout dishes, part of the ‘Back to roots’ menu, which includes paired Russian wines (the country also has a burgeoning wine industry).
“The turnip is like bread for us. It appears in many different guises in our cuisine,” Igor says. “I spent a lot of time at my grandmother’s house in the countryside, just outside St Petersburg. It’s rich with produce, from incredible root vegetables to an array
of mushrooms in the forest in winter, and abundant soft fruits in the summer. We’ve discovered beautiful produce all over Russia, from sweet langoustines in the Sea of Japan to intensely flavoured mussels from the White Sea-Baltic Canal.
“This makes it exciting to be a chef in Russia, and even more exciting to be a chef in St Petersburg. The restaurant scene here is dynamic — and it’s all happened in the last six years or so,” says Igor.
Over on Rubenstein Street, I discover a new street food market, the first of its kind in Russia, where I try mouthwatering brisket from local outfit Smoke BBQ, and delicious walnut-stuffed aubergines from Georgian restaurant Chemi. I end the night up the road with a killer cocktail at Social Club. One of a growing number of cocktail bars, it incorporates an innovative restaurant and regular live music acts. “We were one of the first on [Rubenstein Street] — now there are over 50 restaurants here,” says owner Ilia Bazarsky. St Peter would be proud.