They say that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. It’s the way to mine, too. So, when gearing up for our visit to St. Petersburg, the prospect of drab food options made my heart sigh a big meh. I imagined dining exclusively on borscht (beets and my taste buds are mortal enemies), stewed cabbage, and boiled potatoes, then forcing it all down with liters of vodka. I was letting communist-era stereotypes mess with my head (a recurring theme with me here, and I should have learned my lesson by now). I had forgotten that the Russian Empire had once encompassed dozens of ethnicities and cultures–each with their own distinct cuisines–and that, oh yeah, this is the 21st century and St. Petersburg is a pretty cosmopolitan place.
It’s not that bleak food doesn’t still linger. It does. Dismal diners slop down mushy veggies (cooked to within an inch of their life) for lonely-looking souls. It’s retro middle school cafeteria-style cuisine for adults…minus the pimples and food fights.
If you want to step it up half a quarter notch, you can dine at the invading multinationals like McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, or the latest edition–Quiznos. They’re easy to find. Their logos look the same as in the States, even when spelled in Cyrillic.
Street food has a presence, too. Food trucks (although not as edgy or gourmet as the recent trend in the States) and hot dog vendors are fairly common. You’ll easily find quick snacks for 30 rubles ($1). Come on, how can you pass that up?
But if you really want fast-food, you may as well go full-blown Russian and try Tepemok. Sample savory pancakes as well as sweet ones. Not your cup of Russian black cherry tea? Try their soups, buckwheat porridges, or salads. Averaging about 120 rubles per dish (roughly $4), you can sample a wide variety of Russian food without breaking the bank.
When I’m in the States, I crave Mexican food. In Russia, people crave Georgian food. After tasting it for myself, I understand why. Rick and I joined our ex-pat friend Steve Caron at his neighborhood Georgian restaurant. Dining family-style, we scarfed down delicate eggplant slices wrapped around a creamy walnut pesto. We followed that up with kachapuri, the genius Georgian equivalent of pizza dough filled with cheese and baked with even more cheese on top–basically the best cheese bread ever.
After that, Steve gave us a lesson in eating khinkali, a softball-sized broth- and meat-filled dumpling, similar to Chinese tangbao. Holding it by its twisty handle, nibble a teeny piece from the bottom and suck out all the broth. Then eat away at the dough wrap to reveal the protein prize inside.
Wash all that down with some tarragon lemonade. You’d be tempted to think this Incredible Hulk-green beverage might turn you into a science fiction monster, but the most it’ll do is satisfy your thirst with a refreshing herby sweetness.
Similar to Georgian, yet still unique, is Uzbek food. A flat-noodle version of khinkali has virtually identical flavors as its cousin to the northwest. But the dish that almost made me lose my manners was a family-style version of samsa. One bite of this delectable veggie and tender meat potpie–laden with hints of black cumin, coriander and celeriac–and I was ready to start hoarding away chunks of it in my purse like a squirrel stocking up for winter.
Being the most European of all Russian cities, St. Petersburg benefits from looking westward for culinary influence. A new restaurant, Schengen (whose name celebrates notion of passport-less travel throughout the Schengen Treaty countries, as well as the broader idea of traveling freely) take its patron’s pallets on a trip through Europe with dishes like confit de canard, Icelandic trout soup, and affogato. Looking even farther west., America’s favorite comfort food, mac & cheese, now comforts Russians, too.
And at New Holland–a yuppie suburban park and community oasis where the cool kids go to see, be seen, chill out and get some good eats–“exotic” treats like chicken tandoori pop up on the menu, along with fresh vegetables with hummus, sliders with all the fixings, and sweet potato fries partnered with garlic aioli. Nom nom.
If you’re like me, you don’t have a sweet tooth–you’ve got sweet teeth. A place like The Cookie Shop can supply a sweet for each of your thirty-two pearly whites. While it may seem to Americans like their selection is ordinary, these are all novelties here. Imagine gooey chocolate chip, bumpy oatmeal raisin, and freckled snickerdoodle cookies not as the usual suspects but as mysterious and trendy treats. And if you crave another kind of naughty nosh, cupcakes and macarons can be your decadent vice instead.
For more natural and healthy options, you can’t beat a trip to the local market hall or corner convenience store. Like at their counterparts in Budapest, Helsinki, Paris, or Madrid, you get access to the freshest fruits, artisan items like honey, and cultural staples like pickled vegetables. A smidge of this and a bit of that are the makings of a perfect picnic or midnight snack.
Top it all off with a frothy latté at the nearest coffee house. And as you make your way to the bottom of your cup, pat your full belly, savor your string of dining memories, and sigh with satisfaction at how St. Petersburg has found a fond place in your heart.