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Known for having been the capital of the Russian Empire for a long time since it was founded in 1703 by Tsar Peter the Great, St. Petersburg never denied its cosmopolitan potential, having been built as a port city to integrate Russia into Europe.
Designed in the image of many European cities, with its colorful and imposing buildings, the town was assembled on dozens of islands, which allowed it to be an important point of passage (and arrival) for people from all over the world. This vocation has always remained in the culture of Saint Petersburg – and more recently has also been more evident in its food scene.
In recent years, the city has become an exciting setting for a diverse, invigorating and exciting gastronomy, thanks mainly to young chefs who, by opening their own restaurants, gave a breath of fresh air to a cuisine not so well known to the world – and not even and not even broadly locally valued for its traditional recipes and ingredients.
But there is a new scene going on in the country, and especially in the city that has been its primary connection with the world for a long time, gaining the attention of gourmands, journalists, and food writers around the globe. "While Moscow is known for its substantial, stunning restaurants, St. Petersburg has gained its space with small, independent projects where chefs decided to undertake and showcase their talent," explains Alena Melnikova.
She is managing partner of some restaurants in the city and also founder and CEO of St. Petersburg Gourmet Days, a gastronomic festival sponsored by S.Pellegrino, that reached its third edition from 1 to 16 June in the city, in which local restaurants host many international chefs from across Asia, Europe and America to four-hand dinners, among other activities, such as restaurant tours and food parties. Melnikova decided to create the festival three years ago to highlight and empower the rising local food scene. “We have a lot to show”, she says. “There are many interesting concepts popping up in the city”.
A wide food panorama
As a proof of her statement, one of the events joining in the festivities this year was a dinner held in Grebeshki Bistro where ten young chefs from the city were able to prepare dishes and serve it to the public: the special brigade included Alexey Alexev (who cooked Terrine of Northern fish with caviar sauce), Viktor Gussev (Smoked halibut with sauce of hazelnut and cream of baked apples), Victoria Mossina (Farm grown radish with aioli of wild leek and wild flowers), Nikita Lopatin (Tiradito of scallop with yuzu soy), Dmitry Kullenen (Roll of salmon, surimi sticks and jalapeno sauce), Evgeniy Kozubov (Sakhalin shrimp with sauce of raspberry and nettle and caviar), Innokentiy Regentov (Pastrami of tuna, nectarine confit, sage), Maria Dementyeva (Creamed ganache of white chocolate with spices and Matcha tea), Ruslan Babadjanov (Tataki of salmon and tomato with peanut hoisin sauce) and Pavel Bogryanov (Scallop of truffle cream, sauce jou, crumble of chicken skin).
Among the restaurants, all run by young chefs in their 20s or 30s, there were many different proposals, from those with a focus on zero-waste and sustainability, such as Grün Café, from chef Viktoria Mosina, and to those seeking references from east to west in creative recipes, as is the case of Hunt, that prepared a Sakhalin shrimp (founded in the largest island of the Russia) with raspberry and nettle sauce during the event.
What caught the attention was the wide panorama of the gastronomy of Saint Petersburg today, and how many exciting concepts have awakened in recent years: there are many restaurants with strong Asian accents (like Made in China), while others are focusing on rescuing the rich history of Soviet cuisine that remains almost to the sidelines, highlighting local ingredients and techniques. After the introduction of sanctions against Russia and the imposition of an embargo on Western goods, Russian manufacturers and farmers nowadays have been able to fully secure their market, focusing on local produce - which curiously helped to foster local gastronomy.
Also looking for Asian references, chefs Dmitry Bogachev and Eldar Muradov got together to open Mr. Bo, an informal and cozy restaurant where they create no more than 20 dishes in a menu designed to experience many things as tapas. Prawns with tomatoes and yuzu sauce, tuna ceviche and fresh oysters with passionfruit sauce are part of the recipes created by them. “We decided to embrace a restaurant where we could cook things we really like. And more people seem to be open to new flavors in the city, especially with the increase of tourism”, explains Bogachev.
Another feature that draws attention to this new gastronomic scenario in Saint Petersburg is the ability of young entrepreneurs to team up to create small, independent gastronomic groups without needing the money of big investors - at least in the beginning. When young friends Dimitrii Blinov and Renat Malikov opened their first restaurant, Duo Gastrobar, five years ago, they might not have imagined that they would go so far: the fourth restaurant of their group, Harvest, opened in 2018, was elected as No. 92 in the current World's 50 Best Restaurants 51-120 List, the city's first restaurant in the history of the acclaimed list.
After working in several restaurants in the city, they thought it was time to take their first step on their own: they opened Duo Gastrobar, a hip bar and restaurant with hearty and well-executed Mediterranean dishes, which has become an instant hit in the city. Afterwards, they created Tartarbar, specializing in meat, and more recently they opened Duo Asia, a huge success in town, proving the local demand for Asian flavors. Harvest, the most ambitious proposal of the group, named Duo Band, opened only six months ago and is a fine-dining plant-focused restaurant that works only with organic and local produce.
Following the successful path of Blinov and Malikov, young chef Hezret-Arslan Berdiev also joined three other chef friends to create Birch, one of the most sought-after restaurants in Saint Petersburg right now. With a casual but superb atmosphere and rich gastronomic proposal, Birch is what could be defined as an affordable neo-bistro, with dishes that seek reference in Latin and Asian cuisines but with Spanish and French techniques. The combination works very well in recipes like the brioche with beef tartar, cheese fondue, and black truffle or the Azerbaijani's simple tomatoes served with peaches, basil, and a delicious olive sauce.
“We decided to create a smaller project, less pretentious, but in which we could have the freedom to do everything as we wanted”, explains Berdiev, who worked in Saint Petersburg’s Four Season and was the 2016 winner of the S.Pellegrino Young Chef award for the Russia, Baltics & CIS region. Born in Turkmenistan, he shares the kitchen with other three colleagues of different nationalities such as Russia and Uzbekistan – a mix that helps a lot in the creation of unique dishes, as he says.
“I think there is an inner desire for young chefs to follow their own path, to finally rescue their own references after having worked for other restaurants. It's the beginning of a story we want to embace by ourselves", he concludes. And also a new chapter in the local gastronomy in Saint Petersburg.