A Meal Fit For A Tzar
Sobranie Russian Restaurant and Bar
8 Fountain Square, London SW1W 9SH
As some of you are aware, I now host a spoken word night called Red Army Fiction. My co-organiser, a wonderful lady called Alison, said she’d take me out for dinner to celebrate the success of our first event back in May. So last Thursday, we took advantage of a Groupon voucher Alison had acquired for a Russian restaurant in Victoria, which I thought was quite fitting, given the name of our event.
Russian food is full of so many familiar flavours and yet to some can still seem so alien. In my Shaka Zulu review I called African food ‘the last culinary frontier’. Perhaps Russian cuisine also has a claim to that title, because so far my search for a truly authentic Russian dining experience in London has eluded me. So I got the tube over to Victoria with Alison hoping that would change.
Despite its obscure location and casual exterior, the inside was cosy and the unsurprising Russian-style decor did not feel forced, or over the top like some ‘themed’ restaurants can be. Sobranie, with its natural decor and Russian staff, is far from a themed bar. It has the vibe of a Russian officer’s mess with an authentic, homely feel about it, although personally I would have left the tacky plastic flowers at home.
We were treated to a shot of chilled Russian Standard vodka each along with an amuse-bouche, rolled-up blinis filled with smoked salmon and topped with salmon roe, served with sour cream and a slice of lemon. All delicious, and all included in the deal.
It is obvious that they get a lot of business from Russians living in London and wanting a taste of home. It seemed a world apart from Novikov, the new ‘place-to-be’ for London’s money crowd and footballers alike. In Novikov we have a place run by a culinary oligarch of the same name but with very little emphasis placed on Russian food, whereas Sobranie is the polar opposite. A gourmet gallery showcasing the best that Russian cuisine has to offer, an edible exhibition which extends from a variety of pelmeni and blinis and the ubiquitous borscht, to russian classics such as beef stroganoff and chicken kiev, and for the more adventurous, ‘Salo’, a Ukrainian dish consisting of thinly-sliced cured pork fat. Seeing this, I jumped right in and ordered some as my starter, while Alison went for the safer choice of a Russian salad.
I had heard of salo before thanks to watching Anthony Bourdain, where it appeared in both his Ukraine and New York episodes, but this was the first time I had tried it myself. I have heard of it being served coated in peppercorns or even in chocolate – however in this incarnation it was with garlic. The waiter humorously described it as ‘Russian Sushi’.
Here’s an incredible thing – for a dish consisting almost entirely of pig fat it was incredibly light! Delicate, flavoursome and with an interesting texture whereby the fat kind of liquefies in your mouth between thin layers of meat. The garlic was a little overpowering but not enough to put me off. I will definitely eat salo again if given the opportunity, and it’s another thing crossed off my cibarian bucket list.
I’ve always been a fan of Russian salad, and will be among the first to stick up for it. ‘Salad’ in Russian seems to roughly translate to ‘Slathered in mayonnaise’, and this puts the wind up a lot of health freaks due to it’s high calorie content. This incarnation, however, needed no defending. It was superb, and enough to give any critics of Russian salads a firm shove into line, before sending them on a forced march to the Gulags where they attempt to survive a Siberian winter on a diet of iceberg lettuce.
The two starters came with a small basket of black bread and were simple but impressive, leaving our tastebuds piqued and our stomachs wanting more.
Alison’s goulash – served in a bread bowl – was the centrepiece of the meal. It was huge!! If it had been any bigger they would have needed a carriage horse to bring it out. For those of you unfamiliar with the bread bowl concept, it is exactly what it says: a loaf of crusty bread with the middle hollowed out and replaced with a stew, in this instance meat goulash.
Food scholars among you will point out that goulash is a Hungarian dish, and therefore has no place on a Russian menu. But I found its inclusion quite interesting, and it was keeping with the Eastern European theme. With its delicious combination of succulent meat, vegetables and a rich broth with the smoky notes of paprika, this one was a winner.
I’d gone for the pan-fried fillet of sea bass, which was nice but ever so slightly dry. It was served on a bed of leaves with a pickle salad which cut through the dryness of the fish somewhat, but I thought it could have maybe done with a wedge of lemon. But it was still a very enjoyable dish. I was tempted to order a side dish to accompany it, but Alison was struggling with the bread-bowled behemoth so I gladly finished it for her. (The waiter informed us that only one customer had ever eaten the whole thing, bread and all).
For dessert, I went for the honey and walnut cake which looked so inviting that I immediately tucked in and cut off the nose before I’d had the chance to take a photo of it. I’d had my first taste of honey and walnut cake just a few weeks earlier when my mum had brought some home which was given to her by a Slovakian girl she works with. I liked it then and I have to say that this is fast becoming one of my favourite desserts, for the Sobranie version was even better. A really nice way to round off a very good meal. Alison went for the savoury option of a selection of cheeses with crackers.
The overall experience at Sobranie is a highly positive one. The staff are very professional, polite, and attentive without being overly attentive. I did glance at the regular prices and it’s worth pointing out that it isn’t the cheapest of places to eat, but the food is worth what you pay for it and they do have special offers. The Groupon was an amazing deal, all in all comprising of three courses with canapes, a bottle of wine and a shot of vodka each. I would strongly recommend dining at Sobranie for a truly authentic and delicious Russian experience.
*Based on the prices for the regular menu, however set menu prices are lower and special offers are available periodically.