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Winter Palace…Royal, Russian Repast!

It isn’t often you hear about Russian Cuisine in India, let alone taste it, so the news of a speciality Russian Restaurant opening up in Chennai had my ears and taste-buds both perk up.

Located centrally, off Cathedral Road and within the Russian Cultural Centre Complex, this pretty restaurant is like a teeny-tiny powder-blue ode to the original Baroque-styled Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia. A loose and much less grandiose interpretation no doubt, but quaint…and surprisingly evocative.

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White Orchid – a fruity mocktail

Though there is an outdoor option and it’s a cool overcast day, I choose to sit indoors and take in the Russian setting. As I settle into the blue-brocade chair, I am handed an armful of menus. A large laminated card with the names of the dishes, as well as a smaller pictorial version with descriptions to make choosing easier and some beverage menus. My friendly waiter arrives by my side and asks whether I would like a glass of wine to start with. I gawk at him momentarily, since that isn’t a common query when you’re lunching at a stand-alone restaurant in Chennai. He points down at a single-sheet Beverage Menu and I see that I do indeed have a choice of Wines, Beers and Cocktails to choose from. Even though the sun is setting over some part of the world, I decide to file this interesting piece of information away for future use and order myself a White Orchid Mocktail (INR 120) instead. A fruity melange of Litchi, guava and Orange juice. It arrives soon enough, and is a pleasant, though not particularly exciting or memorable drink.

Glancing through the fairly wide choice of hot and cold appetisers, I wish I had planned better and come with at least two more people so we could sample the interesting variety of vegetarian and meaty starters. My eyes skim over the Salad a la Rus (INR 230), linger longer over the Cured Salted Fish (INR 210) and Calamari and Onion Rings (INR 320) but finally settle on the Mushroom Blini (INR 260), and I order a plate.

Mushroom Blini

The Main Course list includes some familiar names found on most ‘Continental’ Menus viz.  Stroganoff , Chicken a la Kiev and a page’s worth of  Shashlyk (marinated, grilled meat and seafood). There are also some interesting sounding Plovs (Rice and chicken/lamb cooked together – INR230/250.)  I choose the Salmon a la Moscow (INR 590) which is described as a ‘Fillet of Salmon adeptly grilled & baked with tomato and cheese’, and is served with grilled vegetables on the side. I place my order for it and right on cue, my Mushroom Blinis arrive. A blini is a Russian pancake/crepe and can be stuffed with a sweet or savoury filling. The one that arrives is lacy and has the savoury sauce oozing out of the gaps, in little golden droplets. Appetizing to look at, and the promise made to my eyes is fulfilled when I take my first bite. Mushrooms in a creamy béchamel wrapped in a lacy pancake and topped with a blob of sour cream…it is the perfect bite!

Shortly after, my Salmon arrives and it looks even better.  Melty cheese, vibrant vegetables, crisp lettuce and a beautiful fillet of Indian Salmon. I pray that it tastes as good as it looks…and it does! The fish has a nice crust and is tender and juicy inside. The flavours are clean and uncluttered. The cheese and tomatoes are hot and bubbly and the vegetables, grilled and herbed to perfection. My only wish was that the beautiful crisp lettuce had been dressed rather than being served au naturale.

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Napoleon Cake

For Dessert I order the Napolean Cake (INR 150) and a cup of Black Coffee (INR 45) to wash it down. The cake is a version of the French Mille-Feuille (thousand leaves) Pastry aka the Napolean, which is many layers of pastry held together by vanilla pastry cream.  I find the flavour one-dimensional and the consistency a tiny bit dry. I am glad I ordered the coffee, even though it’s more hot than strong. It is a mildly disappointing end to an otherwise satisfying meal but not enough to keep me from coming back. There are many more delicious sounding Russian delights that I am keen to sample viz. the Borsch (cold Betroot soup – INR 170), the famous Varennikhy aka Pierogi (Stuffed, boiled dumplings – INR 150), the large variety of Shashlyks (grilled meats/seafood – INR 450-1600) and the famous Chicken a la Kiev (Chicken fillet stuffed with herbed butter and then crumb-fried- INR 345).

Winter Palace is a pretty restaurant, with an indoor as well as outdoor option that would be lovely during the tiny window of pleasant weather Chennai gets at the end of the year. Service is competent and the food has the advantage of being novel as well as well-made. A little more attention to detail could take it from being moderately good to excellent.