If you do venture to St Petersburg, put aside a few extra rubles and splash out on a caviar experience at the Belmond, says Lara.
I’ve never had the desire to eat caviar. It’s probably because I ate some cheap stuff somewhere a long time ago and so I’ll admit it, I was concerned that my plans to sample Russia’s greatest delicacies at the Belmond’s Caviar Bar in St Petersburg might have been a bit lofty.
A fine dusting of snow covered car roof-tops and grassy patches on the night of my visit to the Belmond’s Grand Hotel Europe, in the heart of St Pete’s, and so the coatroom was our first port of call.
The Caviar Bar greets you as you arrive at the top of the grand staircase to the first floor. Kitted out in sleek, masculine black and red décor, designed by Mr. Per Spook, ex-stylist for Dior, the Caviar Bar is partnered with Dom Perignon a fact which is emblazoned on the tables and menu.
With 15 types of caviar, 12 champagne vintages, 35 vodkas and 15 varieties of distillate, Belmond’s Caviar Bar has Russia’s only full-time professional vodka sommelier and his name is Alexander Dmitriev; he guides us through our caviar and vodka journey for the evening in excellent English.
"There are two ways to eat caviar” says Alexander, “Russian-style accompanied with vodka, or the French way – with Champagne.” According to Alexander, the “gentle saltiness of the caviar is perfectly set off by the discreet and refreshing acidity of the Champagne”, even still, we opt for vodka.
In our cosy little corner, the meal begins with some bread and salmon caviar-blended butter, and eventually the caviar and vodka arrives, beautifully presented on a glass plate.
The Imperial Cocktail from the Pure Russian Experience menu is a selection of oscietra malossol, sterlet and salmon caviar - 5 g of each - served on blinis with sour cream accompanied by a tasting set of premium vodkas including with the Beluga Noble, Chisti Rosi, Onegin.
Alexander explains the different types of vodka and caviar, kindly suggesting we first try a bite of the caviar-topped blini, followed by a sip of the paired vodka followed by another taste of the caviar– noting the difference in flavour.
Seeing the mounds of charcoal-coloured spheres, glistening on their blini mounts, the tension is high; I’m not certain I’m going to enjoy this at all. The first textures and flavours that register are the slightly sweet blini, and of course the dill and sour cream but then the caviar hits my tongue.
It’s much softer than I remembered, and beautifully subtle in texture and flavour. The caviar tastes buttery, like a nebulous burst of freshness with a finesse of flavour I’ve never experienced before. It’s not at all like that “tastes like the sea” flavour, sort of like sea urchin, that I was anticipating and I could confirm in an instant that in fact, yes, I do like caviar.
After a sip of the Samovar Kupechesky, which is in fact a grain distillate, the flavour of the caviar seemed to open up, somehow being made more readily accessible to my taste buds by the alcohol.
In succession, we carefully tasted and sipped the Russian delicacies. The first two caviar blinis were oscietra malossol and bester malossol.
Oscietra (or Ossetra) is a type of large sturgeon that can live up to 50yrs, and its eggs are amongst the most prized and expensive types of caviar. Bester is a beluga hybrid and ‘malossol’ simply means ‘little salt’ and simply describes the salt treatment of the eggs.
The caviar was unpasteurised, and this is rather special because you’ll only ever be able to eat unpasteurised caviar in Russia, as all exports must be pasteurised.
The next came the starlet caviar, a smaller species of sturgeon and lastly salmon. All of the caviar was incredible. Light and fresh, creamy and subtle in flavour, not at all the briny mess I was expecting.
The vodkas were also delightfully crisp and fresh-flavoured. Vodka’s flavour comes primarily from the water used to dilute the rectified spirit, which is so high in alcohol that any flavour from the raw material is obliterated.
The Samovar Kupechesky, tasted more like whiskey because it is distilled with grains and aged for a short time, and was once called ‘bread wine’ whereas the Chisti Rosi and Onegin vodkas were made the usual modern way.
Thinking I’d hit the peak of pleasure, our next course arrived. Selected from the Caviar Journey menu, the signature dish of L’Europe restaurant is called Egg in Egg, and features three egg shells filled with truffle flavoured scrambled eggs, oscietra, bester and salmon caviar.
This decadent dish contains every single element of food that I’ve ever loved – delicately scrambled, creamy eggs with a hint of truffle, and the fresh, lightly salty burst of caviar.
A truly divine mouthful and maybe the best thing I’ve ever eaten. We were given a shot of truffle-infused vodka, which was interesting, but perhaps not a combination I’d revisit.
Our mains were two different versions of the iconic beef stroganoff. Mine was the evolved, modern variant, presented as thin slices of prime beef stacked with layers of potato truffle puree, a pool of onion puree, salted cucumbers and pickled mushrooms – topped with a crispy nest of potato.
My dining partner had the traditional version, which was generally more savoury and actually, my preferred choice. To accompany our mains, we were encouraged to try the Russian wine, which I was not entirely certain of at first.
But upon tasting the Fanagoria Vintage from the 100 shades range, I was pleased to find it very smooth, mellow and perfectly astringent. Made with a variety of grape native to Georgia called saperavi, I will be sure to keep an open mind when it comes to Russian and Georgian wine in the future.
Crepes Suzette and a chocolate mousse and caramel ice cream dessert followed, with a sneaky shot of strawberry-infused vodka on the side.
We left the Grand Hotel Europe with a warm and fuzzy vodka-glow ready to tackle the arctic walk back to home-base.
The night was so special, so peculiarly Russian and delightfully decadent that it will become a firm favourite in my list of best nights ever.
If you do venture to St Petersburg, put aside a few extra rubles and splash out on a caviar experience at the Belmond.
You will not regret it and like me, you’ll discover that caviar’s reputation as one of the world’s most glamorous, indulgent delicacies is truly well-deserved.
Caviar Bar & Restaurant
Belmond Grand Hotel Europe
Mikhailovskaya Ulitsa 1/7
191186 St Petersburg
Tel: +7 812 329 6000