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.