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Russian Riviera

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Photo: Simon Watson

Of course, the rough edges hardly matter once one is inside the Rodina’s stately gates, where the atmosphere is so Western, travelers may as well be on Majorca or the Amalfi Coast at one of Stein’s other properties. The hotel will appeal to Russians as a way to "be in Russia without being in Russia," according to Stein Group chairman Thierry Naidu.

The same could be said of the attraction of the place for foreigners, who might be a better audience for the resort, regardless of the Olympics. Greg Tepper, president of the Exeter International agency, a Florida-based company specializing in luxury travel to Eastern Europe, says that a stop in Sochi is sometimes, though not often, part of a client’s Russian itinerary. "The people we’ve sent there are eccentric, looking for something off the beaten path," he says. He adds that to fly directly there from the United States is an "insurmountable" challenge and that he "can’t imagine Sochi in the foreseeable future having major appeal for Americans." On the other hand, Sochi’s current buzz, fascinating history, colorful boardwalk, and unfamiliar but delectable cuisine could constitute major draws in themselves—a reason to come here instead of a more predictable Eastern European destination.

The restaurant scene is predictably (and maddeningly) inconsistent, but a handful of places serve authentic Caucasian food, making them worthy destinations. Beliye Nochi ("White Nights") offers a cult version of the Georgian meat dumpling khinkali that one Sochi businessman and bon vivant describes as the best in Russia. These juicy packets of ground meat, wrapped in a tissue-thin flexible dough, are served boiled or fried, with a variety of sauces (sour-cream-and-garlic and sour pomegranate are favorites). Regulars call ahead to reserve multiple orders, which they eat with many little side dishes, in the Georgian style. At Shalet, a café on the boardwalk, the lyulya kebabs of ground lamb are sprinkled with pomegranate spice, parsley, and chopped white onion and are accompanied by plenty of papery Armenian flatbread.

But the best food can be found at Amshenski Dvor, a 30-minute drive from the Rodina in the direction of Krasnaya Polyana. This mostly open-air Armenian restaurant is set behind a structure that looks like the prow of a ship. Peacocks prowl the courtyard; grapevines drape over and around the cabanas; communal tables are hewn from whole trees. House specialties include fried egg and cheese on fluffy homemade lavash bread, polenta-like cornmeal mamaliga, and grape leaves stuffed with fresh cheese, mild rice, and lamb in a nutmeg-tomato sauce. All this is followed inevitably by succulent shashlik, Caucasian skewers of grilled meat.

This idyllic scene is not without flaws. The staff’s collective English is rudimentary at best, and the bathrooms are better left undescribed. Amshenski Dvor’s edges, like so many others found in Sochi, are rough. But sitting in such a place, a stone’s throw from the blue, blue waters of the Black Sea, savoring regional home cooking while the Volgas and Ladas cruise by on the highway and, perhaps, dabbling in selections from the extensive vodka menu, a person could be forgiven for thinking that there’s nothing at all wrong with Sochi that a few billion dollars couldn’t fix.

Valerie Stivers-Isakova lives in New York and Moscow. Her first novel, Blood Is the New Black, will be published by Crown in the fall.

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