Notes from St. Petersburg

My metal tray slides along the purpose-built rails generating a loud, clanging sound as it collides with that of the person in front of me. I mutter a feeble apology and swiftly move ahead. The grumpy lunch lady behind the plexiglass screen glares down at me, grunting every time I point at something that catches my fancy on the buffet counter she’s manning. Plonking down a bowl of luridly pink soup and a quarter plate of the greyish hamburger patty onto my tray, she all but ‘banishes’ me to the cashier with a wave of her mighty arm.

Now, before this begins to sound like some dystopian, boarding school-meets-prison lunch hall memory I’m conjuring up, let me set the record straight. I’m in St. Petersburg, trying out a dining experience that I had been wanting to have a go at ever since I had heard about it. Lunch at a Soviet-era stolovaya is slowly becoming something of a tourist must-do when in the most western city — culturally speaking — of Russia. And so, there I was at the Ligovsky Prospekt branch of Stolovaya n.1 Kopeika, a popular chain in St. Petersburg, where both the brusque service and the pink-tinted beetroot borscht are said to be equally legendary!

Servings of nostalgia

The word stolovaya simply means ‘canteen’ in Russian, and is a nostalgic leftover (pun intended!) from Soviet times when providing an ‘adequate’ level of care and provision for the population in all areas of their lives was the well-flogged mantra. The Germans even have the perfect name for this — Ostalgie, a portmanteau of Ost ‘east’ and Nostalgie ‘nostalgia’, referencing East Germany. While such public cafeteria-style restaurants can be found everywhere in Russia, it is St. Petersburg that boasts the greatest number — both venerable establishments and more recent, 21st century iterations trying to distil the traditional bleak atmosphere. Right down to the Soviet-style prints hanging on their walls and staff drawn mostly from the ex-Soviet republics of Central Asia.

In St. Petersburg, most stolovaya are open 24/7 and are cash-only establishments. And in a city where buying groceries and cooking one’s own food can be an expensive affair, eating all three meals at a neighbourhood stolovaya is the norm. For here, a hearty lunch of a soup, soft drink, main course and dessert can often be bought for as little as 200 roubles ( ₹218).

Herring under fur coat!

The food on offer at most stolovaya is home-style, fill-your-belly, no-frills stuff. Here, one can find dishes like the ubiquitous mayonnaise-doused fruit-and-veg Salad Olivier, known to the world as Russian Salad. Apparently, the salad was named after Lucien Olivier, a Belgian-origin chef who invented it at Moscow’s Hermitage restaurant in the 1860s. Equally popular are the kotleti hamburger-style patty and the beetroot borscht — both of which I’d tried earlier and loved. Not so much the insipid, watered down kompot, however. This soft drink is said to be a stolovaya mainstay and is made from synthetic ‘fruit’ syrup with tiny bits of fruit flotsam bobbing along its room-temperature surface.

But then some stolovaya specimens are utterly confounding to a non-Russian — the innocuous pickled fish and boiled eggs shuba salad is translated as ‘herring under fur coat’ on menus, while yezhik, a traditional side dish of rice-spiked meatballs, is rendered literally as ‘hedgehog’. Interestingly, breaking away from the traditional model as far the menu is concerned seems to be the latest trend. I was soon to learn that St. Petersburg has a number of speciality stolovaya options such as all-vegetarian (Rada & K on ul Gorokhova 36), organic and even a few where the emphasis is on ethnic cuisine. Puris in St. Petersburg, anyone?

The Mumbai-based writer and restaurant reviewer is passionate about food, travel and luxury, not necessarily in that order.

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Printable version | Nov 29, 2020 5:32:57 AM |

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