Thursday, June 21, 2018
Dining

Searching for Sochi? Here's a taste of Russian food, culture in Tampa Bay

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.

Comments
Wine dinners, beer projects and more will wet your whistle this summer

Wine dinners, beer projects and more will wet your whistle this summer

FILIPINO FOOD: WELCOME CHISMISHave you been to the Heights Public Market at the 73,000-square-foot Armature Works yet? It’s the buzzy food market in Tampa Heights with more than a dozen vendors offering up everything from rolled ice cream to Cuban sa...
Published: 06/20/18
Restaurant review: Chile Verde is serving up very solid tacos in an unlikely spot

Restaurant review: Chile Verde is serving up very solid tacos in an unlikely spot

ST. PETERSBURGThere are a lot of decommissioned gas stations across the country. Some have been reinvented, cleverly made over as upscale restaurants. There’s Big Star in Chicago, Elaia & Olio in St. Louis, Red Truck Bakery in Warrenton, Va., even Bi...
Published: 06/18/18
From soft serve to ice pops, 12 places to get frozen treats

From soft serve to ice pops, 12 places to get frozen treats

I know we have three more months or so of hot-as-dog-breath Tampa Bay summer, but let’s start things off on the right foot with some frozen treats. Ice cream is on my mind after a recent visit to Disney Springs, when I found love in a perfect scoop o...
Published: 06/13/18
Five restaurants worth checking out at Disney Springs in Orlando (w/video)

Five restaurants worth checking out at Disney Springs in Orlando (w/video)

LAKE BUENA VISTA Disney Springs has swiftly become a playground or trial balloon for the country?s celebrity chefs. Art Smith, Masaharu Morimoto, Rick Bayless, Guy Fieri, Tony Mantuano, Wolfgang Puck and others are already on board, with names like ...
Published: 06/13/18
A hook-to-table food experience in Tampa Bay

A hook-to-table food experience in Tampa Bay

Going fishing is like doing your taxes. If it’s something you dive into just once a year you end up relearning the whole thing every time. Jake Whitfield eyed me, no judgment, and decided to cast for me the first time, my little wriggling greenback z...
Published: 06/11/18
Ceviche closing in South Tampa

Ceviche closing in South Tampa

TAMPA – The Ceviche restaurant at 2500 W Azeele St. is closing.Caledon Concepts, which operates Ceviche restaurants in Orlando, Tampa and St. Petersburg, said the restaurant’s last day at that location will be June 16."The expiration of the lease for...
Published: 06/08/18
Deal alert: Hard Rock Cafe has 71 cent burgers for its birthday

Deal alert: Hard Rock Cafe has 71 cent burgers for its birthday

SAVE THE DATE: HARD ROCK B-DAYOn June 14, 1971, the founders opened their own American-style diner in an old Rolls-Royce dealership and called it Hard Rock Cafe. They had a vision to combine music, memorabilia and all-American fare. Here’s a tip: To ...
Updated one month ago
Restaurant review: El Chapo Taco fills a need with fun, friendly Mexican spot in Gulfport

Restaurant review: El Chapo Taco fills a need with fun, friendly Mexican spot in Gulfport

GULFPORTWhat do we know about El Chapo, a.k.a. Mexican drug lord Joaquín Guzmán? He ran the Sinaloa Cartel, even from prison, and first appeared on Forbes’ billionaires list in 2009. He’s 5 feet 6. He’s the father of 12 or 13 children. He has a talen...
Published: 06/04/18
Updated: 06/07/18
National Doughnut Day is back. Where to get free doughnuts, doughnut beers and more

National Doughnut Day is back. Where to get free doughnuts, doughnut beers and more

Believe it or not, Friday is already June 1, which means National Doughnut Day is back with sweet deals.The day was created to celebrate the Salvation Army’s "Doughnut Lassies," who served the treats to American soldiers on the front lines during Wor...
Updated one month ago
A look at how Tampa steakhouse Ocean Prime keeps its menu fresh

A look at how Tampa steakhouse Ocean Prime keeps its menu fresh

TAMPAThe executive chefs all fly into Columbus, Ohio. Before they step into the kitchen, before they sharpen a knife, they sit down and have a meeting, an open dialogue. They examine the whole menu: What’s working? What needs fixing? And then they ge...
Updated one month ago