Admittedly, I've always had a pretty old-school perception of Russian culture. You know — babushkas, bread lines, the Space Race, fuzzy hats, herring, cabbage soups, that sort of thing.
So when my editor approached me about doing a Russian-focused story in preparation for the Sochi Olympics, my initial reaction was nyet (that's Russian for no).
Turns out, there's plenty to know and love about Russian food, drink and culture. In fact, by the end of my expedition, I was saying da (that's Russian for yes) to more Ruskie goodies.
To help celebrate the kickoff of the Winter Games this week, we rounded up the bay area's best Russian offerings, including a live bear show in St. Pete, some pretty boss borscht in Clearwater and an oversized group drink dubbed the "socialist martini" in Ybor City.
First, let's clear something up. Does our St. Petersburg have anything to do with St. Petersburg, Russia? Glad you asked. It does. The 'Burg's name pays tribute to city co-founder Peter Demens' childhood home in Russia.
That being said, there aren't many Russian options in St. Pete. Fortunately, the ones that do exist are pretty good.
At Azalea International Deli, the gracious staff helped me pair up a tasty Russian salami by Patak (a specialty sausage and salami maker) with a semi-hard, gouda-like Lithuanian cheese by Gildija. I also sampled the Russian salmon roe caviar, an iridescent red-orange variety in my price range, which had large, firm beads oozing with the salty flavors of the sea. Azalea also boasted a full grocery and a large selection of European candies. The Akkond Ptitsa Divnaya was my favorite with its marshmallowy whipped-cream filling sandwiched between two layers of chocolate icing.
Perhaps the most well-known local Russian establishment, St. Petersburg Nights offers the full cultural experience with food, drink and live entertainment. We tried Khortytsa Ukranian vodka, first in what the bartender called a "Soviet Washington Apple" and second as a shot, which came with a pickle wedge. The lesson here: Just as Mexico has lime for its tequila, Russia has a pickle wedge to chase its vodka. Seriously. We toasted saying Na zdorovje (nahz-dor-OH-via), or "cheers to your health."
On stage, a puffy-shirted host was joined by belly dancers, spinning gypsies and the special monthly guest, a 2-year-old brown bear from the Bearadise Ranch in Myakka City (who, not to worry, focused squarely on the trainer's bottle of honey the whole time). Confetti snow rained down and Russian folk songs played. Sadly, I recognized only Korobeiniki, a 19th-century number that's more commonly known as the "Tetris song." Thanks, Nintendo.
Across town, the single best thing I ate on my quest was golubtsy (or cabbage rolls) at the Euro Food and Deli in Clearwater. These were juicy cooked cabbage leaves wrapped tightly around minced beef, onion, garlic and dill, and served with a side of sour cream and Russian rye bread. Another medal winner was the made-from-scratch borscht, which was plenty intimidating with its combo of beets, beef, beans and bay leaf, but surprisingly satisfying. Euro Food and Deli also offered assorted cold cuts and veal pelmeni, the traditional Russian dumpling similar to Polish pierogi, but with thinner dough. (Just to note, its sister store on Kennedy had fewer homemade choices on hand.)
If it's cocktails you seek, check out the Russian-themed Czar Nation's People's Party (soon to be Reign Saturdays) at the Ritz Ybor. And forget the White Russian. The "Moscow Mule" at the bargain price of $4 is where it's at. The combo of ginger beer, Russian vodka and lime made this drink go down smooth. Too smooth, perhaps. And the 32-ounces, Pucker-touched "socialist martini" was a fun group option. Siberian "ice shots" came filled with a choice of vodkas — 19 Russian varieties and 10 Eastern European options, to be exact. You can throw these at the wall when you're done. Or, have your shot set on fire if you fancy the "Flaming Molotov Cocktail" version.
As for beers, Russian brands don't exactly fly off the shelves here, but Baltika is a popular choice. Total Wine & More carries six varieties of Baltika, my favorite being the No. 6 Porter, a malty, full-bodied beer with cocoa and coffee notes. These all came in one-pint sizes. (Actually, in some of the Russian markets, beer comes in even larger 2-liter plastic bottles.)
There were other places around town that weren't specifically Russian, but carried Eastern European items. They included the G&M European Delicatessen with its Bigos, or "hunter's stew"; and Kalina's Coffee and European Foods, with a variety of Russian, Bulgarian, Bosnian and Lebanese products. I picked up Russian buckwheat here to pair with the aforementioned Russian salami. A little weird, but good weird.
So it's not all stroganoff out there, folks. Forget McCarthy, pull back the Iron Curtain and go for the Russian gold.