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Xi Wei Hu Tong
Beijing, Beijing Shi, 100009
China

CHEF cooks. COOK eats. Food, travel, and more.

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STROKE OF "GENIUS" IN SAINT PETERSBURG

COOK

I, the genius, Igor Severyanin,
Am drunk with my own victory:
My face is shown on every screen!
I’m confirmed in every heart!

This humble admission is the opener to "Epilogue", a work by one of Russia's most acclaimed (some might say notorious) poets, Igor Severyanin. The turn-of-the-century author was known for his flamboyant streak and was the leader of a group of writers called the Ego-Futurists, which tells you all you need to know about the guy. While I'm no great fan of his work, I'm inclined to believe his declaration of genius if his uncanny intelligence has anything to do with the fantastic fare at a 2011 St. Petersburg opening bearing his name: Северянин.

End of summer pike roe, served with dark rye.

Severyanin was a pen name meaning "northerner", and it is in this mode of grandmotherly, Siberian home cookin' that our lunchtime find operates. The cuisine of the Russian North, like the food of the American South, evokes images of steam erupting from the most comforting, sticks-to-your-ribs sorts of dishes, hearty out of necessity and scarcity rather than a casual hankering for soul food. 

At this Siberian outpost in Saint P, the self-described savant poet's portrait scowls down from the mantle, wondering why you didn't eat that bite of duck quite as smartly as he might have (were he, you know, genius enough not to have died many years ago). In addition to Severyanin's ugly mug, a smattering of other knick knacks from the period dots the room: leathery books moldering in corners, patinated candleholders embalmed in cobwebby drippings. Tchotchkes abound. What would seem like an inappropriate amount of taxidermy nearly anywhere else feels right at home in Severyanin's dining room. The frightened, glassy eyes of woodland creatures silently trumpet: "Gaze upon the martyrs of the forest, we who have died to feed you!" The genteel atmosphere of an 1880s salon de thé is cut by this violent streak. Nothing could feel more Russian.

CHEF and I are here during the midday business lunch (би́знес-ланч) scramble. We have faced some service challenges at other locations during peak hours, but at Severyanin, we are treated as if there is no one else in the restaurant. Our waitress stops by to relay specials and suggestions in impeccable English, making sure we do not miss the highlights of a menu crafted to reflect the impending arrival of fall. They're offering her personal favorite today - pike roe on dark rye, an end of summer special - and we cannot pass it up. Soon, we've added a mushroom raclette, duck, and rabbit pot pie to our order. Cue impatient waiting as enticing aromas drift in to tease us from the kitchen.

Fortunately, our thumb twiddling is quickly rewarded with the arrival of Russia's favorite summertime beverage: mors (морс), a zippy blend of fermented lingonberries and other fruits, and the Great White North's answer to Pimm's. We are treated to a variation on the theme when our serveuse brings a pale green version made from sea buckthorn. It samples much more heavily from the spice rack, with muted fruit tones but enough snap to serve as a fine apéritif.

Palates are primed and bellies begin to announce their cavernous emptiness. Our unruly stomachs are hushed by beautiful chanterelles lounging in a dairy bath, which appear at the table and immediately start Whack-A-Moling our spiking hunger pangs with a mallet of cheesy stank. Gruyère and its buddies are here, and we are happy to see, smell, and taste them. It is a surprise to encounter these 'shrooms so early in the season, but we are not upset - northern Russia's mild summers mean that fall fare arrives at the table earlier, making this meal possible in the beginning of August. Talking ceases and I forget that CHEF is even there as cheesy tunnel vision sets in.

An otherwise lipid-dense meal is necessarily punctuated by our waitress's brilliantly salty, sparkling recommendation: the pike roe, which comes to the table ceremoniously ladled into a glass cone resembling a high school science experiment (my first thought is of titrating my brown bread with fish eggs). Is this vessel the standard delivery method for roe in Russia? It's unclear, but in this application, it accommodates voracious snarfing perfectly. This pike is the peak, as far as I'm concerned. The eggs are shrouded in a creamy suspension, and the bread has enough of a backbone to stand up to the roe's rivery brine. It is all the things I want from this meal in one dish: depth of flavor, beautiful plating, and, somehow, a feeling of being at grandma's, even thousands of miles from home.

Halvah and Borodinsky rye ice creams, a fitting cap to a stellar meal.

By the time our mains hit the table, my eyes are already glazed over with butter cataracts. The roast duck is a little lean, but plays well with young squash and end of summer blackberries erupting with sweetness. Rabbit pot pie - dense and nourishing - makes a more memorable impression, particularly with CHEF. The dough is flaky and light and yielding, but retains its structure even after sustained contact with its luxurious contents. I wish I could take this pie home and save it for a blustery January night in NYC. Entrée takeaway: the more likely an animal is to impart some kind of moral wisdom in a children's storybook, the more delicious it will be in a cream sauce. 

We eye the door, twin Mr. Creosotes desperate to escape our one thin mint and the inevitable explosion. Despite bursting bellies, our waitress talks us into dessert with very little persuasion. Every part of the meal has felt like a coalescense of our time in Russia, but our ice creams - halvah and Borodinsky rye - are a particularly brilliant distillation of the most prevalent flavors from our two weeks of travel from the country's easternmost bounds to its western sister cities. The serviceware seems plucked from an older, fussier time: hooked dessert spoons arrive perched on a pewter bowl and some anonymous grandma's fine china. This pair of creamy confections brings the meal to a smart close, and just in time.

Because I'm a tactless American tourist, I ask the waitstaff to pose for a photo on our way out. I expect this will elicit griping, but instead all are congenial and reply with questions about our meal: did we enjoy the pike roe, because it's the best time of the year for it? What about the buckthorn mors - was it too sweet? Not only is this crew unperturbed by my apparent need to round out our travel scrapbook, but they go to great pains to ensure that our lunch was a memorable one. And while I fumble around trying to string two words of Russian together ("Спасибо, женщина!" is both the best and worst I can do), they've managed to make us feel at home in our own mother tongue. While we were treated well in many eating establishments in Russia, Severyanin's service was particularly stand-out.

Severyanin's extremely accommodating staff.

Even without the ruble's summer plunge, a meal at Severyanin would be a steal for any visitor to Saint Petersburg. The business lunch is certainly a notch above any competition in the area, both in quality and cost. The price is right, the setting apt, and the fare is exceptional. If you're in the city and don't have a dacha to retreat to, run to Severyanin now for a rural escape and a taste of Russia's spectacularly delicious north.

Located at 18 Stolyarny (Столярный пер.), within a fifteen minute stroll of most major sights in Saint Petersburg's historic center.

Last updated: August 6th, 2015