I was sitting in a fancy St. Petersburg restaurant, wriggling my nose at a plate of lackluster escargots. Then it dawned on me. Snails—in St. Petersburg!
During my last visit, a decade ago—on a side trip from Moscow, where I was born—I'd survived so many leaden meatballs in sour cream that my appetite for the city seemed forever ruined. I blamed the Bolsheviks, I cursed Peter the Great. I was ready to storm the Winter Palace.
Today, Russia's second capital is awash in martinis and lattes, as the new rich indulge in ostrich carpaccio at resurrect-the-Romanovs-style haunts. For a city whose culinary culture was ravaged by 70 years of shortages, the foodscape is more than respectable. Still, uncovering outstanding restaurants in St. Petersburg ("Piter" to Russians) can be daunting. While the city prepared to celebrate its tricentennial, this coming May, I sought out dinners as memorable as the Matisses at the Hermitage (don't miss the third floor) and lunches as bracing as a morning stroll through the imperial parks of Pavlovsk and Peterhoff. The vodka is iced, the caviar glistens. Just skip the snails.
À LA RUSSE
After slogging through the comical mishmash of Russified foreign terms on modern St. Petersburg menus—have you forgotten the Russian word for asparagus, comrades?—I found that the menu at Gorchakov's made quite a statement. Lovingly rendered in stylized 19th-century Russian, it was crammed with traditional specialties; my mom (ever the schoolteacher) immediately declared it her all-time favorite. The restaurant, which occupies the former mansion of Prince Gorchakov, a Czarist statesman and a classmate of Pushkin's, is divided into a series of themed rooms: one re-creates a provincial town square, another a Ukrainian village backyard.
It's the sort of setting that calls for a shot of vodka and many plates of zakuski (Russian tapas): smoked fish (herring, sturgeon) and wild mushrooms (marinated, brined, or sautéed with sour cream), plus unexpectedly cosmopolitan daily specials like smoked reindeer with mango. The chef's airy beef and cabbage pirozhki prove that yeast dough is a point of Slavic pride; not even my grandmother's were as fluffy. Gorchakov's also has an encyclopedic roster of blini and dumplings (grab the sour cherry vareniki) and utterly wonderful soups, including a definitive Ukrainian borscht: hot, meaty, and properly crimson. Russian entrées never compare to the appetizers and soups, so I passed on the country sausage and the slow-baked pork ribs. Mother, meanwhile, snatched the menu. She reads it nightly before bed. 19 Bolshaya Monetnaya Ulitsa; 7-812/233-9272; dinner for two $50.
Podvorye, near the country palace of Pavlovsk a half-hour drive south of town, feels less like a restaurant than an ethnographic museum—down to an exterior modeled on a Russian log cabin, the stuffed bear by the entrance, and the waiters' folkloric garb. Inside, there is enough lumber to forest tree-less Iceland. Owned by Sergei Gutsait, a self-made tycoon, the place conjures up a Slavophilic vision of a self-sufficient agricultural paradise that's nothing short of Tolstoyan.
The fresh juices (mulberry, cornelian cherry) are made from fruit grown on Gutsait's Crimean estate. The list of infused vodkas reads like an ancient folk poem: birch bud, cowberry leaf. The house-made jams and herbal teas take up pages. A paean to the northern countryside, the cooking revolves around dacha fare: meaty porcini gently pickled with black-currant leaves, robust potato pancakes with pork cracklings, rich sturgeon solianka soup zapped with olives and pickles, and the kind of stewed duck with sauerkraut I thought had disappeared with, well, Tolstoy. Enough to make any Russian feel warm and fuzzy. 16 Filtrovskoye Shosse, Pavlovsk; 7-812/465-1499; lunch for two $45.
THE SPICE IS RIGHT
Back in the days of the U.S.S.R., without access to travel or foreign cuisines, Russians turned to the Soviet Union's exotic fringes for complex, spicy food. Though the empire is no more, their affection for the cuisines of the Caucasus and Central Asia remains. With its lavish use of seasonings and a vast selection of tart fruit and nut-based sauces, Georgian was Russia's defacto haute cuisine. Head to the modest Café Salkhino to taste the marvelous pkhali, or vegetable-and-walnut pâtés (eggplant, roasted pepper) scented with khmeli-suneli, Georgia's signature coriander-based spice blend. Pounded walnuts also enrich garlicky satsivi spooned over poached chicken. And don't pass up the khachapuri, or Georgia's answer to pizza. The best rendition is the boat-shaped open pie from the Adzharia region, near the Black Sea, with a bubbling center of mozzarella-like suluguni cheese into which the waitress stirs a raw egg and a pat of butter. Pure cholesterol, pure joy. 25 Kronverksky Prospekt; 7-812/232-7891; lunch for two $40.
All the strands of ex-Soviet ethnic food anthropology come together at Caravan, a cavernous Central Asian-themed restaurant by the Fontanka River. The reclining stuffed camel, the faux mosaics—it's all a bit Disneyland-ish. Yet as I watched young couples reverentially polish off their pilafs with chickpeas, I knew that this was one of the rare places in town where well-off natives come to eat, not just to exchange boasts about their latest Mersik (a pet name for a Mercedes) in the sonic blitz of a deafening band.With a brigade of Azerbaijani, Armenian, and Uzbek cooks presiding over the kitchen, the menu whisks you from Baku to Yerevan to Tashkent. The Azerbaijani soups brim with lamb, chestnuts, and yellow peas; the kebabs are succulent. But I'd be just as happy eating my way through the dumplings and pies, from chebureki (calzone-shaped Crimean fried meat pies), to chuchvara (Uzbek ravioli with spinach and yogurt sauce). Let the Rolex-toting swells swagger over defrosted hamachi at Sakura (the "in" Japanese spot in town). They don't know what they're missing. 46 Voznesensky Prospekt; 7-812/310-5678; dinner for two $60.
HOTEL DINING: PUTIN ON THE RITZ
Unlike brash, populist Moscow, St. Petersburg retains an almost obsessive attachment to haute culture (when was the last time you heard tattooed youth argue about Tchaikovsky in a coffee bar?). Fittingly, the Grand Hotel Europe—across the street from the Philharmonic and just off Nevsky Prospekt, the city's main thoroughfare—works tirelessly to nurture its role as a premier cultural symbol. Its restaurant is the setting for a variety of musical evenings; at breakfast you can refuel on selyodka (herring) while being serenaded by a world-class guitarist or harpist.
A tasting flight of caviar and vodkas is de rigueur at the hotel's snug and moody Caviar Bar. You can also order the degustation in the lofty L'Europe restaurant, surrounded by Art Nouveau stained glass and warm wood etched with period motifs. The kitchen excels in traditional warhorses, turning out remarkably light chicken Kiev, fine stroganoff made with Black Angus beef, and shchi (cabbage soup) so rich and refined you'd never guess it was an iconic proletarian potage. I watched a fresh-faced server adorn a cheesecake with intricate black-currant swirls. He labored with the breathless concentration of a Fabergé craftsman, then confessed: "I adore this work." And to think in the Soviet days, the hotel's growling, black-market-caviar-peddling waiters were infamous. 1-7 Mikhailovskaya Ulitsa; 7-812/329-6000; dinner for two $100.
Recently taken over and refurbished by the Rocco Forte Group, the Hotel Astoria speaks to style-seeking urbanites who frequent Forte's de Russie in Rome or Savoy in Florence. Its mint green tea salon is a great place to get caught in a snowstorm, sipping strong chai from the blue Lomonosov china. If Davidov's restaurant reminds you of Gordon Ramsay's dining room at Claridge's in London, it is because it was also designed by David Collins, Britain's answer to Adam Tihany. At Davidov's, Collins fused Piter's signature yellow and white Neoclassicism with clubby lighting and leather banquettes, to fabulously romantic effect. At night, waiters in chic Slavic tunics ply the city elite with pelmeni (Siberian dumplings), offered here with some half-dozen fillings, from crab to lamb. Much of the menu lacks sparks, but the crisp pan-fried Georgian chicken and the ukha (clear salmon soup) served with rasstegai (fish-filled pastries) live up to the setting. This is, hands-down, St. Petersburg's most glamorous restaurant. 39 Bolshaya Morskaya Ulitsa; 7-812/313-5757; dinner for two $105.
Exeter International (www.exeterinternational.com; 800/633-1008) is leading a 300th anniversary tour of St. Petersburg.