While visiting St. Petersburg, I happened to be (attempting to read) reading for the first time Dostoevsky’s imposing novel on human honesty and character, Crime and Punishment. Amidst the glittering canals and thousands of camera toting tourist groups during the end of the city’s famed annual White Nights Festival, I kept imagining St. Petersburg in Dostoevsky’s gritty world. At every street corner Raskolnikov would seem to stroll by and give me his stare of anxiety. For those who have read the novel, that means it’s time to sprint away as fast as possible.
Fortunately, the literary world is the literary world. St. Petersburg is indeed one grand city. When I announced my intention to visit the Federation earlier this year, my friends and colleagues who had been to Russia recently or even back in the old USSR days said there is no reason to visit. Except for St. Petersburg. St. Petersburg is the western most, culturally speaking, city in Russia. If there is a city that seems more progressive in Russia, it has yet to be found, most likely in distant Siberia. When you visit St. Petersburg after spending time in Moscow, you understand what everyone is talking about. It’s a more extreme case of visiting the calm splendor of Florence after the chaos of a Rome or Naples.
St. Petersburg is many cities put together. With its dozens of canals weaving all around the city, St. Petersburg is one part Venice. It is one part Amsterdam too with those canals, a heavy bike culture, and a ring-like street design. Paris certainly comes to mind with the striking architecture, the “Champs Elysée of Russia” (The Nevsky Prospect), and its dramatic riverside setting, where couples stroll along the Neva, much like Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron did along the Seine. Then there are those old Soviet scars here and there, more so away from the Neva River area. Those remind you more of Moscow, as does the hyper-efficient metro system with the stations so deep you could swear you reached the center of the earth (Stalin’s intention was for metro stations to be nuclear bunkers). Despite no longer being the capital of Russia, St. Petersburg would fit right in as a prominent Western European capital city.
Culturally speaking, St. Petersburg is every bit on par with the premier destinations in Europe. You of course have the Hermitage, home of da Vinci’s Madonna Litta, and roughly 150,000 other works on display, including some 24 Rembrandts. Just like the Louvre, The Hermitage is housed in a former palace, here the stunning sky blue painted Winter Palace. The Hermitage can only be discussed in the same sentences as the Louvre and Prado for European equivalents. Stunning bridges abound across the canals and Neva abound. The same with cathedrals, especially the Church of Spilt Blood and Saint Isaac’s. The world’s second most important ballet theatre, the Mariinsky, is in town, where yours truly witnessed a spectacular Stravinsky double bill. Arguably the world’s most impressive summer arts festival, The White Nights Festival, takes place each late June to July here. Along the Gulf of Finland resides the Versailles of Russia, Peterhof, reached by a forty minute hydrofoil boat trip from the Hermitage.
When Peter the Great founded St. Petersburg in 1703, he set out to make Europe’s grandest city. It might not be there quite yet over three centuries later. Still, a stroll along the Neva or through the Summer Garden proves you are in one of the world’s premier cities.
But is St. Petersburg one of the world’s premier cities for dining, like it is for the arts?
It’s not really even competitive against Moscow for the title of best dining city in Russia. St. Petersburg has nothing the level of Ragout in Moscow, or even Pushkin. Despite being sick my entire time in St. Petersburg, a food writer knows how to find that second wind and still march through the necessary restaurants and markets.
There doesn’t seem to be any need to mention the restaurant Teplo, where nearly the entire restaurant was filled with tourist families. Teplo is the most commonly recommended restaurant in town, boasting a glorious patio, and a series of homey rooms with every knick-knack they could find used as decor. The menu is sprawling, mostly Russian and Western classics, with a few nods towards creativity. The borscht here was surprisingly dull, as was the attempt towards being exotic with shrimp and mangoes in coconut milk and a dry carrot cake. Only the far too large warm chicken liver salad (the “house salad, welcome to Russia) was worth recommending.
Cafe Idiot is another favorite of tourists and bears little recommend outside of the Russian classic blini and caviar, and the clever “Russian Sushi.” At least here you get a free shot of vodka with dinner. When you’re under the weather, you’d prefer a free shot of green tea. Nope, this is Russia. It’s strange how Idiot serves every dish with a canned black olive and parsley leaves. It’s a nice attempt at a garnish, but…not exactly Pierre Gagnaire. By the way, why is it Cafe Idiot? The namesake would be the Dostoevsky novel.
St. Petersburg’s most rewarding dining can be had by straying away from the usual Russian classics geared towards visitors. Go for the yoga, healthy cuisine at Botanika near the Summer Garden, the meat pies and fruit pies at Stolle, and the lounge-restaurant of Mansarda, one of the newest and most ambitious projects from the Ginza Project. The Ginza Project would be Russia’s equivalent of Los Angeles’ SBE group that hopes to bring high end cuisine together with flashy nightclubs and celebrity owners. They’ve conquered St. Petersburg and Moscow with dozens of concepts. Now they have moved their ambitions to New York.
Mansarda’s menu isn’t much shorter than Crime and Punishment. The risotto with langoustines barely had any langoustines, but don’t skip the smoked salmon carpaccio or an impressively not rubbery grilled calamari salad with real cherry tomatoes. The smashing and too chic to even be called chic ambiance is spectacular. The view of Saint Isaac’s Cathedral from the restaurant’s sixth floor perch is reason enough to go. Boasting winning service and a contemporary design of a modern art gallery meets Meatpacking District lounge, Mansarda is the one mandatory restaurant to visit in town. The place is a big celebratory party with acceptable food and drinks. And there’s no velvet rope like at some of its rival nightclub-restaurants in town.
And for any tourist with food as an interest, a visit to the Kuznechny Market is necessary. This is the spot to barter for (not very good) cherries and peaches, sample fresh honey, and gaze at the various meats and cheeses on display. Kuznechny is no world famous food paradise. It is quite the experience, however. Don’t plan on making a meal out of it.
Five Best Dishes
Botanika: Asian Stir Fry
Botanika strives to bring elements of yoga cuisine amidst the heavy dumpling and cream sauces of St. Petersburg. Concepts from Asia, Italy, and even Mexico sprinkle the menu. Sometimes it doesn’t work, like with the bland hummus and the dull falafel. It works flawlessly with this vegetarian stir fry mingling rice noodles with tender zucchini, broccoli, spring peas, sweet peppers, and tofu in a robust sauce based on ginger and red chilis. Don’t even think of coming without ordering Monkey Food Juice: Apple, banana, and peanut butter, oh my.
Idiot: Blini Stuffed with Salted Salmon, Cucumbers, and Sour Cream
I can’t get enough of blini. Instead of the usual caviar, these crêpe-like pancakes are filled with heavily salted cold, cooked salmon, crisp cucumbers, and enough sour cream to fill a burrito. They do love their sour cream here.
Idiot: Russian Sushi
Yellowfin tuna? No. This creative take on sushi features herring with mayonnaise, potatoes, cucumbers, and green salad, wrapped in scrambled egg instead of seaweed. Does it work? Eh, sort of. It won’t compare with any great sushi you may have eaten before. But it’s a very imaginative idea. Major bonus points for that.
Mansarda: Banana Cream Pie with Dark Chocolate and Graham Cracker Crust
Finally a banana cream pie with more banana than cream. About a foot long, this is an epic pie without being too cumbersome. Bananas and a pie-length streak of dark chocolate atop a perfect graham cracker crust show that Mansarda takes its pastries seriously. The beautiful crowd all ordered this pie, yet somehow looks as if they never eat pie.
Stolle: Boysenberry Pie
Speaking of pie, this mini chain with a cult following does nothing except pies. Meat pies. Fish pies. Fruit pies. Just not Sweeney Todd pies. The crust is perfectly flaky with a small hint of butter. Don’t make me choose between the luscious boysenberry or barely tart apricot pies. O.k., boysenberry it is. Unlike in America, the fillings don’t overflow. They accompany the pastry dough. These are really more delicate pastries than hearty pies.
Concept of St. Petersburg: Chic vs Touristy
Restaurants in St. Petersburg seem to fall into two themes. There are those meant for tourists looking for homey Russian cuisine (Teplo, Idiot) and those who want old Russian elegance. Then there are the restaurants, such as any from the Ginza Project, where the target is the glamorous, lounge meets nightclub meets thoughtful designer food audience. In other words, you have the juxtaposition of the old guard vs the new guard. With a little more time, the latter will certainly win out.
Drink of St. Petersburg: Passion Fruit, Rum, and Port at Mansarda
The name escapes me. Yes, it tastes like a mai tai. Somehow the port makes this drink more notable than what you’d find at Trader Vic’s. You’ll feel like you’re looking at Waikiki instead of Saint Isaac’s.
Whatever you do, don’t think of visiting the highly rated Bar Stirka 40. Stirka 40 is part student hangout, part dive bar, part laundromat, and the only charm comes from drinking with laundry machines next to you. I have no idea why this place has a vaunted reputation for drinks. The cocktails are actually cocktail shots, made of syrups as fresh as what would be put in a county fair snow cone. The dark, slightly campy ambiance is similar to any university town bar that thinks it’s cool, but isn’t. Instead, dress up and sip a Manhattan at the new rooftop bar of the W Hotel. Or go for the luxury in the Grand Hotel.
Beer or Wine?
Vodka. You’ll have an array of cheap South American and Australian wines or expensive French and Californian wines to choose from. Feel free to risk the beer. After the Guinness I tried in Moscow, I decided the rest of my time in Russia would be free of brews.
Shall we grab a coffee?
Sure. Let’s meet at Cafe Singer, the prominent people-watching spot along Nevsky Prospect, on the second floor of the Dom Knigi bookstore. It’s the ultimate bookstore cafe, complete with a panoramic view of Kazan Cathedral, and a shockingly impressive espresso.
Restaurant of St. Petersburg: Mansarda
Stolle is certainly the most unique place in town. But for a special night out, you’d be doing yourself a favor to reserve at Mansarda. Everything, from the atmosphere to the cuisine to the diners, is beautiful. It won’t win any Michelin stars. It will win you over though.
Symbol of St. Petersburg:
Finally, a closing note from St. Petersburg: