As soon as my boyfriend, Barry, and I arrived in St. Petersburg, I got reprimanded by a babushka. “You’re so impatient and brisk,” she accused (after I merely asked for directions!). “You must be a Muscovite.” Ouch. In fact, she was right—I was born in Moscow and had just spent two weeks in the brash and flush capital. Chastened but relieved that St. Petersburg (“Piter” for short) still prizes civility, we found our way to Stolle café and queued up for the sweet and savory pies laid out on the counter. Surrounded by polite twentysomethings in woolly sweaters lounging over lattes and novels (you don’t see that in Moscow), I lectured Barry on our famed intercity rivalry.
Moscow and St. Petersburg have been feuding since 1703, when the reformist Europhile czar Peter the Great built himself a brand-new, Western-style capital here on the Baltic swamplands. When Lenin moved the capital back to Moscow in 1918, the power balance shifted. All through my childhood, I heard Muscovites dismiss St. Petersburg (renamed Leningrad in 1924) as a provincial backwater of Dostoyevskian poor relatives. Leningraders sneered back, calling us money-grubbing arrivistes. Yet here’s the latest twist: Muscovites are suddenly heading for St. Petersburg. “It’s like taking a cultural spa vacation,” one socialite gushed to me.
The Hermitage, the palaces and literary museums— culture is what brought me to Russia’s former imperial capital. After a five-year absence, I was also curious about how the new restaurants stacked up against Moscow’s Western-style extravaganzas. Stolle won me over immediately. Never a fan of Piter’s pompous, resurrect-the-Romanovs haunts serving Frenchified food, I was happy to see that this adorable mini chain of pie cafés exemplifies the city’s relaxed new vibe and embrace of authentic la russe cooking. And what could be more Russian than the big rectangular pies called piroghi? “Yeast dough is our birthright,” I boasted to Barry, sinking my teeth into a slab. The fillings were exemplary: Buttery chopped cabbage and hard-cooked eggs seemed straight out of a babushka cookbook, while a mix of rabbit and wild mushrooms moistened with sour cream was a chef’s riff on prerevolutionary recipes. The sweet pirogh, with aromatic Antonovka apples, made me long for a stroll in a Russian orchard filled with the scent of damp autumn leaves. “All these Nabokovian reveries over a pie?” Barry said, rolling his eyes.
Snacks at the Grand Hotel Europe. © Rob Howard
Following the likes of Tchaikovsky and Elton John, we stayed at the Grand Hotel Europe. Despite a recent face-lift, this 1824 grande dame’s gilt and marble still evoke czarist nostalgia. Under a stained-glass dome at the hotel’s Art Nouveau L’Europe restaurant, we raided the obscenely copious breakfast buffet for smoked fish and sirniki, lightly sweetened fried cheesecakes meant to be spread with sour cream and black-currant or lingonberry jam. One night, at the hotel’s just-restored Caviar Bar, we topped blini with plump beluga and sevruga while a singer delivered a world-class recital. Eating caviar in my homeland can be a bit like playing Russian roulette (the jars I bought from a Moscow street peddler turned out to be filled with buckwheat!), so we were grateful for the hotel’s impeccable sourcing.
The Grand Hotel Europe sits right off Nevsky Prospekt, Piter’s Champs-Élysées, which culminates in the iconic golden spire of the Admiralty building. I prowled the prospekt’s stores: Dom Knigi (House of Books), in the Art Nouveau building where Singer sewing machines once had its Russian headquarters, sold cool Soviet-era posters. After popping into Versace (“Nyet, nyet…just browsing”), I ducked into Muzei Shokolada (Chocolate Museum) and instinctively balked at the Lenin busts fashioned from dark and white chocolate. Such irreverence once would have landed the chocolatier straight in the Gulag. I tried a few handcrafted truffles and continued my walk.
Piter, with its Baroque palaces and decrepit apartment lobbies, has long been a juxtaposition of eerie beauty and heart-piercing shabbiness. No longer. Strolling off Nevsky Prospekt, I noticed fresh apricot- and pistachio-hued paint on the neoclassical canalside mansions. Gone were the desperate pensioners hawking “Shanel” perfume on the street. Piter is less flush than Moscow, but oil revenue has clearly brought new prosperity.
Luckily, you don’t need shares in Lukoil to dine at Chekhov, on the city’s newly fashionable Petrograd side. Though Anton Chekhov never spent much time in St. Petersburg, the restaurant captures the melancholy-tinged warmth of the country estates and food he describes in his work. In its imperial heyday, Piter looked mostly to France for culinary (and cultural) inspiration. Then Soviet-era shortages wiped out whatever was left of authentic Russian cooking. Now, it seems, local chefs want to catch up on the past.
At Chekhov, a pianist played Chopin—the city is full of underemployed classical musicians moonlighting at restaurants—while waitresses in 19th-century-style outfits delivered the kind of lyrical dacha food that makes every Russian reach for a shot glass. We ordered vodka infused with pine kernels and a slew of zakuski (“vodka chasers”), like crunchy, house-cured sauerkraut with lingonberries. There were also dill-strewn pickled porcini and a properly old-fashioned dish of jellied oxtails and pig’s feet. Having grown up on the watery Soviet rendition of shchi (cabbage soup), I was amazed at the version here: fortified with pork ribs, simmered for 24 hours and served, per the Russian custom, with buckwheat and pirozhki on the side.
Leaving the restaurant, I spotted a chauffeured Bentley with Moscow license plates waiting outside. Was St. Petersburg a nostalgia theme park for rich Muscovites?
Loaded or not, any visitor to piter must take a day trip to one of the countryside’s royal palaces. Peterhof, reached by a dramatic hydrofoil ride up the Gulf of Finland, is a demi-Versailles of gilded rooms and elaborate fountains. Further afield, an hour’s drive inland, Oranienbaum merits a visit for its recently restored 18th-century Chinese Palace, a rococo confection where Catherine the Great entertained Prince Orlov. My favorite outing combines a visit to the Catherine Palace in the town of Pushkin (15 miles south of Piter) with one to Pavlovsk, the neoclassical palace-park built for Catherine’s paranoid son Paul I.
Roasted duck with apples at Podvorye. © Rob Howard
To avoid the commuter train and long ticket queues at Catherine Palace, we hired a car and a guide named Yelena. Yelena whisked us through the art-filled rooms of the icy-blue, 18th-century Baroque palace, expounding on the food habits of the royals. Peter the Great was so fond of brown Dutch bread (he studied shipbuilding in Holland), he learned how to bake it. Catherine’s gluttonous banquets were legendary, but the czarina preferred to ladle shchi to her guests at intimate gatherings.
Catherine Palace’s highlight is the restored Amber Room. This chamber, decorated with wooden panels inset with six tons of rare amber, was presented to Peter the Great by the king of Prussia in the early 1700s. After the Nazis looted the palace during World War II, the entire room vanished. Work on the replica began 30 years ago and cost probably that many millions of dollars. For $85,000, a version of one of the amber panels is available at a nearby shop run by artisans involved in the room’s restoration. Me, I settled for a slender $50 amber necklace.
We toasted my purchase with house-infused vodkas—birch buds, linden flowers—at Podvorye, my all-time-favorite country restaurant (photo, above). Podvorye is the folkloric Slavophile vision of a do-good oligarch called Sergei Gutsait, who also founded a lycée for orphans nearby. Never mind the kitschy log-cabin look; the food is so authentic it borders on anthropological. We sat on long wooden benches drinking house-made kvass (an archaic brew made from fermented black bread) and ordering far too much. Slurping down the rich, ruby borscht and the solyanka, a Slavic chowder thick with smoked meats and olives, I decided that I’ve been squandering my life on Italian and Japanese food. Then came venison stroganoff and shredded black radish with pork crackling, another dish I’d only read about in old cookbooks. Afterward, we strolled among the statuary in the gorgeously landscaped Pavlovsk park, inhaling the scent of those damp autumn leaves I’d been fantasizing about.
Have I mentioned that I don’t like the Romanovs much? (With a few exceptions, the czars were reactionary creeps.) But I do covet their porcelain, which is why, on the way back to St. Petersburg, Yelena took us to the Imperial Porcelain Manufactory, which was founded in 1744 and is still in operation. At the small museum upstairs, we pored over pieces created by the great Suprematist painter Kasimir Malevich in the 1930s. A raid on the shop produced a tea set decorated with the factory’s traditional blue, white and gold pattern.
Royal tea sets, linden-flower vodka, fabulous pies and nostalgic walks in the park…. Could I be just another Muscovite falling in love with St. Petersburg?
Anya von Bremzen, a Moscow-born writer, is the author of Please to the Table: The Russian Cookbook and The New Spanish Table.