From Russia with love

2011-07-29 09:55

Russian literature is an ­acquired taste.

There’s far too much bleak hopelessness and tragedy for most readers.

Similarly, I always thought of Russian cuisine as a little like the gourmand’s equivalent of ­Siberia – all borscht, cabbage and dumplings.

It’s true that there are dumplings, cabbage and borscht on the menu at Joburg’s new Russian eatery, Russian House in Hurlingham, but there’s also a lot more.

The place has been open a little short of two months and the ­owners – Charles Elliot and his wife, Oksana – have recently ­returned from Moscow after 22 years, where they had two ­restaurants.

As for our first foray into Russia, my dining companion and I ­started with a tot of honey and pepper vodka as an aperitif.

After all, what would a Russian experience be without vodka? It was delicious – spicy, ice cold, sweet and with a velvet-gloved alcoholic punch.

We decided to keep it traditional, ordering the ubiquitous borscht as well as Vareniki, Solynka and The Bolshevik – skewered snails, flame-grilled in garlic butter and served with Parmesan shavings and a steam-out-of-your-ears chilli sauce.

They were delicate and tender, melting away in a blaze of heat and glossy butter.

The borscht was delicately flavoured, sporting the beetroot-based soup’s signature pink and served with pork ribs.

It was very tasty, but it was the Solynka soup that was a real revelation.

Combining the flavours of black olives, bacon, lemon and salted cucumber, it is one of the most delicious and unusual soups I have had – and not a drop of cream in sight.

Sharp and salty, I could have had two bowls.

The Vareniki, traditional dumplings, stuffed with chilli cabbage and cooked in broth, were also worth eating again.

Served with sour cream, the dumplings were light and the filling had a mild buzz of heat.

Before embarking on the next course, we cleansed our palates with another vodka – when in Russia and all that.

While the starters, soups and platters, which boast varieties of caviar as well as pickled herring, vegetables and tongue, keep the spirit of Russia throughout, the main courses have a more
global feel.

There is a page of steaks and burgers, obviously to appease the unadventurous diner.

So if your husband is a strictly meat-and-potatoes man, you can still talk him into the experience.

For the more adventurous, there is beef stroganoff, duck with pears and cranberry jus, as well as Golubtsy, which is stuffed cabbage leaves.

My dining partner decided on the chicken kiev.

Done like a torpedo, it was filled with garlic butter, crumbed and served with a mushroom sauce.

Tasty, if a little drier than it should have been.

I settled for The Rasputin – pork belly rolled and stuffed with prunes, served with a balsamic reduction that cut through the richness of the meat and the sweetness of the prunes.

Worth a special mention is the mashed potato, which steered clear of being too smooth.

Instead, it maintained a bit of texture and was delicious and perfect for sopping up leftover sauce.

The vegetables of the day were stir-fried carrots, peppers, cabbage and beans.

A welcome change from the uninspired butternut and creamed spinach that gets splotched on to diners’ plates at most restaurants.

Talking of vegetables, vegetarians are a little limited, with only stuffed aubergine or stuffed tomatoes to choose from on the main-course menu.

For pudding, we shared a berry blini served with whipped cream, a nice finish to an enjoyable menu.

Russian House boasts a large dining area, sparsely furnished with dark-wood tables and chairs, and there’s a display of Russian dolls on the way in and a few snowy Russian landscapes on the walls.

With bare brick walls in parts, the half-full restaurant needed a little more atmosphere, which could have been manufactured with some traditional music played at a slightly higher volume and perhaps a little bar showing off the selection of vodkas.

But with a big stoep and a view over Sandton, it’s likely that Russian House will come into its own in the summer when folk can sit outside washing down platters of herrings and caviar with ice-cold vodka shots.

»? Russian House is at the Nicolway Centre on the corner of Republic Road and Woodlands Street, Bryanston, Joburg call 011 326 0867 or visit russianhouse.co.za

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