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Petersburgers are a proud people: proud of their city, proud of their cultural heritage and proud of their gastronomy.
“The St Petersburg dining scene is incredible, vibrant and original,” says Alena Melnikova, director of Gourmet Days sponsored by S.Pellegrino, a four-day gastronomical festival in the former Imperial Russian capital, designed to bring international attention to the city’s burgeoning food scene. “So many places have come to life in the last few years – I could compare this phenomena with ‘bistro-nomy’ in Paris. [St Petersburg] has become the epicentre of a highly creative, Russian ingredient-led, food movement.”
Held for the second time this June, on arrival of the city’s famous ‘white nights’ – wandering out of dinner, slightly buzzed and certainly full, into the St Petersburg night, a night that never gets completely dark, is something everyone should experience – the event brings international and local chefs together for a series of dinners lapped up by hungry Russians and international media – yes, Fine Dining Lovers was there.
At the forefront of this movement are a group of young chefs – some who’ve worked abroad, some who haven’t – who have, like chefs across Russia, been forced to look inward and rediscover the Russian larder due to the embargo on Western produce that’s been in place since 2014 and are now cooking a contemporary take on Russian cuisine, with global touches.
Here’s our pick of the bunch.
Hamlet + Jacks
Having worked in some of St Petersburg’s best restaurants before heading to Europe to stage for the likes of Albert Adrià, Vikientiev (top left), at the age of 26 (he’s now in his early 30s), opened his flagship restaurant in the city, Hamlet + Jacks. Focusing on unusual flavour combinations, Vikientiev says he was working with Russian producers before the embargo came into effect, and currently offers a menu, ’Ours,’ which is 90% Russian ingredients, and another, ‘Ours and theirs,’ which combines “local ingredients and global tastes.”
Dishes include a hearty ‘Dranik’ (a kind of potato pancake) with confit Murmansk cod, oyster mushrooms, katsuobushi – Asian influences abound in St. Petersburg – and buerre blanc, and a superb savoury-ish dessert of sorrel jelly, rhubarb, cream cheese, malt crumble, Jerusalem artichoke and herbs, called ‘The Springtime Buzz.’ “I’m using a lot of different traditional and innovative techniques – charcoal or liquid, it doesn’t matter,” says Vikientiev, who will shortly open his first restaurant abroad, in Berlin. “Historically the Northern capital [St Petersburg] has been the place of the most genius Russian artists, poets, and musicians. The city vibrates with art of any kind. It is the real magic that you feel everywhere.”
Prices are generally reasonable in St Petersburg, chef Dmitry Bogachev (top middle) points out: at his new restaurant Mr Bo – so new in fact, part of it is still under construction – you won’t find anything on his menu of small plates over 750 rubles (around 10€). Bogachev, who also oversees the kitchen at Mansarda, which boasts one of the finest views of any dining room in the city, of the nearby gold-domed St Isaac’s Cathedral, is all about strong flavours and combining Russian ingredients – seafood from the far east of the country, lamb from central Russia – with spices and umami, drawing inspiration from Asia, India and Latin America with dishes like beef with hominy (a kind of ground corn, used to make grits) and prunes, and a tuna ceviche with sour cucumber. Bogachev lists local chef Igor Zorin, Gordon Ramsay, Ferran Adrià, Hans Välimäki and Joël Robuchon amongst his influences.
If there’s one restaurant not to be missed in St Petersburg, it’s Tartarbar. One of three restaurants from chef Dmitry Blinov in the city, alongside Duo Gastrobar and Duo.Asia, Tartarbar is heavier on the meat and offal – the latter being something that has yet to take off in Russia, he says – but with plenty of delicate Asian touches to lighten things up.
Plates fly out of the kitchen (Petersburgers don’t like to wait, we're told), where Blinov likes to play with people’s expectations of what can be done with seemingly simple ingredients: “One of our best selling dishes the menu is ’Tomato with miso,” he says. “It’s only two ingredients, but the simplicity really works.” His veal brains with wheat and malt truffle sauce are a sensation: most of his ingredients come from Russia and he says he wouldn’t swap the fish and seafood for anything. The embargo, he says, has pushed him to become better. A chef who puts taste at the forefront of everything he does, he says he got into cooking because he “just wanted to eat and what better place to eat than in a kitchen.”
Highlights from St Petersburg Gourmet Days 2018 sponsored by S.Pellegrino