Chipskis with everything

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online

I HAD a meal in a Soviet canteen once. It was very much like the Soviet Canteen, except that there were no pretty waitresses, there were no braying Hoorays, it wasn't in Chelsea (which made the parking easier) and there wasn't any food. The canteen was in a steel mill, and the steel mill was in the middle of a town made of concrete cubes, laid out in that higgledy-piggledy Stalinist way, so that it looked as if the gods had been rolling huge concrete dice and not tidied up when the game was over. I can't remember its name. Only that it was in one of the less warm and toasty parts of what was still the USSR.

I HAD a meal in a Soviet canteen once. It was very much like the Soviet Canteen, except that there were no pretty waitresses, there were no braying Hoorays, it wasn't in Chelsea (which made the parking easier) and there wasn't any food. The canteen was in a steel mill, and the steel mill was in the middle of a town made of concrete cubes, laid out in that higgledy-piggledy Stalinist way, so that it looked as if the gods had been rolling huge concrete dice and not tidied up when the game was over. I can't remember its name. Only that it was in one of the less warm and toasty parts of what was still the USSR.

They fed the workers on shoes, I remember, and bits of old televisions and pipe-lagging. Sometimes, on Fridays, there was an egg. The women who ladled the bric-a-brac on to the plates looked like Les Dawson. The more attractive ones, anyway. That was in 1988. Back in the days before irony.

At Chelsea's Soviet Canteen, however, the resident palate bureau has set up a tongue-in-cheek Russian restaurant which serves modern international cuisine on the basis that people don't like Russian food. Chef Michael Soutar has, as it were, re-written the menu of Russian history, in a collectivisation process that must end, surely, with dishes like koulebiaka and pirozhki freezing out their days in some culinary gulag in Siberia.

Eastern European food is traditionally leaden. But that is also its strength, and it is not impossible to present it without irony. Whether you go for the 1930s Fabian feel of the The Gay Hussar, the Tsarist lushness of Kaspia in Mayfair, or the wartime austerity-a-go-go atmosphere of the Czech and Slovak House in West Hampstead, you are searching for a kind of authenticity. Even the grim herrings and burnt bigos at Zamoyski, in Bel-size Park, add to the realism - making room, by reason of their unspeakable cheapness, for loud balalaikas and 40-odd vodkas.

But the Soviet Canteen lacks the confidence of its comrades. Just after the World's End you walk off the King's Road and descend immediately into a basement. This should be a good sign. Clandestine. Subterranean. Very George Smiley. White lino and long tables were suitably spartan, too, but then we were taken aside and offered a room of our own, just the two of us, with pink light. "Much more romantic," said the waiter.

Except we were both men. And as a result had to talk loudly about women whenever anyone walked past the door of our little boudoir. Fortunately the walls were white-washed brick and the table was a square of cold, hard steel. With the right imaginative leap, it was more KGB interrogation chamber than St Petersburg hen-house: "I'll ask you one more time, is it the fish or the chicken? And remember, we have your children."

The Ultra Borscht is just borscht, but very good. The Zakuski (a sort of mezze) is divided into "traditional" and "decadence" - meaning that on your little triangles of sour bread you get either herring and mackerel or salmon and caviar. The dialectic argues itself out even as you eat - with fish of different socio-economic significance providing as it were, the dialectical material.

Beef Stroganoff is not what you expect - a large and very fine piece of Aberdeen Angus with a semi-Stroganoffy sauce poured over it. It is served with chipski, the least funny joke you will ever see on a menu. They are just like McDonald's chips, which are, of course, the most popular kind in Moscow. Organic salmon is not necessarily un-Russian, but it is served with tagliatelle. Personally, I'd have preferred tagliatellski. Much more hilarious.

Nalisniki - spinach filled ravioli - is one of two vegetarian options. A bit wussy when you consider that the first thing most of us learn about Russian dietary habits is that they lived on mule meat and old people for a whole winter while keeping the Nazis out of Stalingrad.

I was delighted about Kamchatka Manti, however. For years Kamchatka was, to me, just the easiest way into Alaska from Mongolia on the Risk board. Now it appends itself to an excellent, sweetish dish of plump ravioli filled with crab and mushroom, nestling on red cabbage. It is no more Russian, though, than the big Warholesque montage of multicoloured Lenins on the wall. Better red and blue and yellow and green than dead, though, I suppose.

The Socialist Realism of the place was further shattered by Rachel, who never stopped smiling, went out to buy cigarettes for us, cleaned my glasses because they looked a bit smudgy, and warded us off anything she thought we mightn't like by saying, "just leave it to me". Left to her, we got through 29 of the 34 vodkas and had to drag ourselves home with our eyelids. In Soviet Russia, Rachel's role would merely have been to stand outside with her arms folded, pretending the place was closed. But then she doesn't look like Les Dawson, so she would never have got the job in the first place.

Soviet Canteen, 430 King's Road, Chelsea, London SW10, 0171 795 1556. Open Mon-Wed 6.30-10.30pm, Thurs-Sat 7-11pm. Three-course meal about £22. Credit cards accepted, except Diners

What's on the drinks listRichard Ehrlich's selection

The wine list here is short, respectable and - hallelujah! - reasonably priced. It starts at £10.75 and ends at about £25, apart from Champagnes (which are marked up without greed). But this is Russian food, however modernised. And vodka is the Russian drink. From their 30-odd bottles - which I assume are kept in the freezer, comme il faut - you should find a shot of something to match anything on the menu.

Okhotnichnaya (45 per cent), £2.75A flavoured vodka, with aniseed and (last time I tasted it) other botanicals, giving a pungent, spicy taste that makes it well suited to drinking with food. Delicious stuff

Krepkaya (56 per cent), £2.50At a walloping 56 per cent alcohol, this is a drink to be reckoned with. But the flavour is full and well balanced, so the alcohol doesn't dominate on the palate

Wyborowa (40 per cent), £2.50Polish not Russian, but rounded in flavour with a wonderfully oily texture; my favourite all-purpose vodka

Comments