- Food & Drink
Cafe Pushkin serves the hautest of haute Russian cuisine to tourists, businessmen, unimaginative husbands who forgot their wives’ birthdays and parties that like to celebrate in a dignified, hushed, expensive sort of a way. We went there because we were too tired to walk far for dinner and throwing money at a problem often makes it go away.
We did put on our best dresses, though we ruined it by wearing flat shoes that didn’t match, enormous thick ski jackets and bringing a massive grey rucksack, which Leonard refused to let go of. In the end it was given it’s own little stool to sit on by our table.
The decor is 19th century gentlemen’s study. In the daytime, this makes it as gloomy and appealing as a coal cellar; at night it looks cosy and romantic. We were given a table in the first floor ‘library’, which has huge windows overlooking the racetrack boulevard and flashing Pepsi adverts.
As soon as we and the rucksack were sat down, our waiter Sergei wheeled over a huge wooden trolley covered with ice and silver buckets and enquired if we’d like a glass of champagne to start our meal. If the enormous rucksack hadn’t given us away as goggle-eyed wannabes, then the horrified expressions on our faces did. We’d seen the drinks menu in the bar downstairs and champagne kicks in at about Rub1,000 a glass (20 pounds).
We stuck to the more conservatively priced cocktails list. DJ had a Campari and soda, Leonard a Martini Rosso and I had a Manhattan (about Rub300 each). The Manhattan was beautifully mixed, of course, and came with a choice of straws. I chose a small straw to humour Sergei and then ignored it. This Russian mania for straws must be tackled. Even our morning lattes came with straws. Hot coffee though straws? Lunacy in glass cups.
We further disappointed Sergei by not ordering starters or salads and going straight for mains – three beef Stroganovs. We had come for tradition and we were going to eat it, with a nice glass of French red wine. Slices of dark bread and sweet butter were bought while waited. Not bad but, as it turned out, not the best I ate in Russia.
The Stroganov came in a divided dish – a lot like the ones schoolchildren are made to eat out of in order to make sure there is no civilised society left. Half the plate was full of Stroganov, a quarter with slices of sautéed potato (never fried and definitely not chips – let no one claim that) and a quarter with pickled cucumber and a few oddments of tomato.
Stroganov is essentially beef cooked in sour cream, with a million versions troubling the authenticity lovers of the world. If Cafe Pushkin serves an authentic Stroganov – and I’ll bet my serfs they claim to – then I’m surprised Russian aristocracy didn’t up and die of heart disease long before the revolution. It was lavish with sour cream. Shreds of beef swam in a sauce so rich that I had to pause after every mouthful to have a small heart attack. It was extravagance rendered so overwhelmingly in dairy that the beef was almost incidental to the luxury of it. And when you’re garnishing your luxury with meat, then you are two steps away from being hung by the mob.
I made my way through about two-thirds of it with help from the floppy potatoes – golden, wonderfully bland but not crisp – and the sharpness of the pickled cucumber. I’d have been happy eating just those, even though the potatoes were a flaccid bunch of slivers that did no justice to the humble root.
Pride meant that we couldn’t let Sergei down by not ordering dessert, so I had two scoops of sorbet and DJ and Leonard shared a plate of cherry pelmeni (dumplings). The cherry and blackcurrant sorbets were as good as an antacid for my troubled stomach and a relief to my taste buds. Pure fruit in every smooth crystal, I opened my dessert stomach and managed the lot. The pelmeni were steamed bundles of cherry goodness and likely to be the cause of many a failed cherry dessert in South East London next summer.
In our frugally extravagant way, we ran up a bill of Rub8,000 (£170, not including tip) for 3 aperitifs, 3 mains, complimentary bread, 3 glasses of wine, 2 desserts and a tiny bottle of £11 Evian. A sneeze in Cafe Pushkin terms, a night of mad indigestion for us.