Fun Dining in Saint Petersburg

In the old capital of the Russian Empire, there’s a growing scene of young chefs who are interpreting local products in the best possible way

22-07-2019
Two a.m. in the centre of Saint Petersburg (photo

Two a.m. in the centre of Saint Petersburg (photo from Niccolò Vecchia)

Saint Petersburg, exterior, night. A clear, luminous night, as always the case over there, from late May until the beginning of July. I’m right outside a restaurant in town and I’m chatting with gastronomic critic and cultural stirrer Andrea Petrini, one of the travel companions in a journey that led me to discover what was once the capital of the Russian Empire, as well as the third edition of the St. Petersburg Gourmet Days festival. 

With us, there’s also Alena Melnikova, founder and soul of the Festival, which has the goal of shedding light on the liveliness of the town’s new culinary scene. A scene with interesting, original features that lead to think it has a specific identity. But how can we define this identity? These restaurants share the same innovative, creative spirit, but they are also casual, young places, that have little to do with the formality of fine dining. In these restaurants they look for high quality raw materials, they enhance local products, perhaps using them to follow influences that come from elsewhere, around the world. But these are also places where you can have good food spending 30 to 40 euros.

The Festival’s poster

The Festival’s poster

«Fun dining», Petrini suggests, during that chat. And it looks like Alena Melnikova agrees: it could be an succesful "brand”. For sure, it catches the spirit that we were happy to notice in almost all the restaurants we visited during five days full of tastings and experiences. The people who opened these restaurants want to have fun and want their guests to have fun too: it’s mostly young entrepreneurs and young chefs, who a few years ago decided to change the looks of the restaurant scene in Saint Petersburg, transforming it into a decisively yummy destination for foodies from all around the world.

«These projects are independent, guided by young people full of ideas and of the desire to be noticed – Melnikova herself explained – and they put together the ambition of offering a creative and personal cuisine with the casual and decisively not expensive approach. I’m very sure that compared to other European cities today Saint Petersburg can offer high quality food at exceptional prices». 

So here’s a small map of the places that we’d like to recommend for your next exploration of Saint Petersburg.

The dining room at Harvest

The dining room at Harvest

Harvest - Prospekt Dobrolyubova, 11 - +7.911.922.27.46
Dmitriy Blinov and Renat Malikov both have experience as chefs, but today they are most of all restaurant entrepreneurs. They opened their first place, Duo, some five years ago. It was a big success. So they continued with Duo Asia (interpreting the influence that can often be noticed in the town’s culinary nouvelle vague), with Tartar Bar, and, early in 2019 with Harvest. Even in this case, the success arrived, even internationally speaking. Only a few days ago this establishment got to number 92 in the World's 50 Best 2019. Harvest, and indeed, the restaurant of these two chefs-entrepreneurs is mostly dedicated to vegetables (not exclusively, but mostly), ethics and sustainability. They work to reduce waste, to present dishes that can satisfy both the palate and the awareness of the guests. With impressive results. On top of the good food, the dining room is also beautiful, the service is of high standards, the wine list can easily compete with many starred restaurants. 

Tuna ceviche with peaches, tomato and yuzu, from Birch

Tuna ceviche with peaches, tomato and yuzu, from Birch

Birch - Kirochnaya Ulitsa, 3 - +7.911.920.31.65
For me this was possibly the best discovery made in Saint Petersburg. It was born from the meeting of four chefs, all with different origins: Arslan Berdiev, a previous finalist for Russia in the 2016 S.Pellegrino Young Chef , is the frontman of the group and directs the brigade with people who have acquired experience and ideas while working all around the world. The result is a rich and varied menu, in which one can easily move from a perfect Tuna ceviche with peaches, tomato and yuzu to an impeccable Beef brisket with cream of aubergines, and in between Prawn wonton with bisque of crab and coconut. Even in this case, but this is a constant, the simple, linear, hyper-contemporary design of the restaurant deserves a mention: in fact, one could say that many of the architects working in the décor of Italian restaurants would profit form a trip to Saint Petersburg. Back to the food, in its essential simplicity we will remember the Carpaccio of tomatoes (excellent, from Azerbaijan) paired with peaches and a sauce of green olives for a long time. 

The two chefs from Mr. Bo

The two chefs from Mr. Bo

Mr. Bo - Manezhnyy Pereulok, 2 - +7.969.711.24.24
While in the two above-mentioned  restaurants one can often find Asian influences, but in a very structured context, Mr. Bo is instead a place that looks exclusively at those styles of cuisine, with a focus on Japan featuring in the menu, though never making you feel like this is a (bad) copy of something else. What makes the experience particularly interesting is the use, as always the case in the restaurants in this piece, of excellent local ingredients. Perhaps it may sound as a paradox, but this is the result of the embargo that hit Russia a few years ago now: the raw materials on which these young chefs rely are mostly produced here. In this case too, there are two people signing the menu: Dmitry Bogachev and Eldar Muradov.

Smoked beetroot at The Repa

Smoked beetroot at The Repa

The Repa - Theatre Square, 18/10 - +7.812.640.16.16
For those looking for a more intense and explicit link with Russian cuisine (especially the pre-Soviet one), this could be the right place. In the kitchen there’s a more experienced and mature chef, compared to the others mentioned here: Igor Zorin is a pioneer for his younger colleagues and acquired experience in London before returning home to work, since 2017, in this establishment right next to the historic Mariinskij Theatre. The food you have at The Repa luckily has nothing to do with the absurd food that tourists can find in some places in town (and very expensive places too): the tasting menu is rightly called "Back to roots" and explores the roots of an unknown culinary history in Europe. Among others, there’s the delicious Smoked beetroot with mushroom ketchup and sauce of milk curdle

Igor Zorin

Igor Zorin

Beef Zavod - Aptekarskiy Prospekt, 2 - +7.812.456.06.95
Of this excellent meat restaurant, which we recommend once again (if you have a soft spot for beef and its endless interpretations), we wrote about in this piece, a few days ago.

The big blackboard at El Copitas

The big blackboard at El Copitas

El Copitas - Kolokol'naya Ulitsa, 2 - +7.812.941.71.68
There’s also a small kitchen, but this is not why you go to El Copitas: this fascinating speakeasy is hidden in a courtyard in the centre of the city and it is worth looking for it. Indeed, it’s at number 39 in the World's 50Best Bars. The inspiration, as one could imagine, is mostly Mexican. But you can easily be surprised by the spectacular Coffee Milano-Torino, in which Bitter Campari infused with coffee grains meets Vermouth “Antica Formula” further aromatised with orange and lime zest. But there are plenty of signature cocktails and all are worth trying. 

Finally, if you’re planning a trip to Saint Petersburg and want to spend a few nights in a hotel that has both antique charm and an impeccable contemporary service, go to the Rocco Forte Astoria Hotel and you won’t be disappointed (and since you’re there, ask for a room overlooking the Cathedral of St. Isaac!). 

Translated into English by Slawka G. Scarso


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