You say you want a revolution...

Clerkenwell might pay lip service to being a liberal heartland, but how will it take to food fit for heroic Russian insurgents? Karina Mantavia finds out
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The gentrification of Clerkenwell continues apace. Like all invaders, the start-up army has remade Clerkenwell in its own image: a whole range of technicolour leisure haunts have sprung up to indulge its every idiosyncrasy. And when the gang is as picky about the quality of its lattes and linguine as this one, they'd better have the right credentials.

The gentrification of Clerkenwell continues apace. Like all invaders, the start-up army has remade Clerkenwell in its own image: a whole range of technicolour leisure haunts have sprung up to indulge its every idiosyncrasy. And when the gang is as picky about the quality of its lattes and linguine as this one, they'd better have the right credentials.

Potemkin, a ridiculously trendy Russian bar and restaurant, has it all. It sits smack opposite a furniture shop whose contents, including a life-size Dalek and Muhammad Ali poster, seem designed to lure a very particular kind of customer. Paunched web entrepreneurs have zoomed in from across the region to sip flash vodka at Potemkin's blond bar, their folded scooters at their feet, each sip eliciting the thoughtful, Equity-card-worthy frown of a wannabe connoisseur.

The restaurant downstairs has different aspirations. And far fewer customers. Maybe it's the entrance that's off-putting: a foot-wide, KGB-style corridor, lit with violent interrogation lights, leads down from the bar. Maybe it's the restaurant itself: small with low ceilings, high-backed scarlet seating and a large mirror-pillar. It's so eerily Twin Peaks, you expect finger-clicking dwarfs to come dancing at you with apéritifs.

The menu reads like a Dostoevsky tract: long, involved, requiring intense concentration and complex agonising choices. Air-conditioning to rival a Siberian winter supplies authentic misery. The name of the place itself contains a majestic story sweeping through history and politics. Grigori Aleksandrovich Potemkin was Catherine II's field marshal and lover, who, in expanding the Russian Empire, became a symbol of bravery. His name was later given to the navy's lead battleship, whose crew's mutiny sparked the first Russian revolution and, ultimately, the birth of Lenin's Russia. This tale was told in a 1925 film by the celebrated film-maker Sergei Eisenstein. Love, war, justice, patriotism. And you haven't even ordered your first course.

When another Russian eatery, Firebird, opened in London last year, local Russians looking for a good time and hearty fare in that order instead found Tsarist opulence and sky-high prices. While the food at Potemkin isn't cheap, the all-Russian staff heavily sell the authentic shtick, right down to the impassioned tear in the eye. The waiter assigned to this surreal basement kingdom gets emotional just talking about the music - Slavic equivalents of everyone from Bryan Adams to Portishead. Apparently, the Russian Tina Turner recently wed the Russian Tom Jones. Let's hope neither sang at the wedding.

To start, the assorted fish platter is excellent. Delicate cured wild salmon and intense, milk-white smoked halibut are both very good, but eclipsed by the astonishing buttery smoked eel. Sturgeon soup is unusual and also good; rich, thick with hunks of the strong-flavoured fish and the surprising addition of black olives. On the waiter's recommendation, we order the middle course, caviar platter Potemkin. Three nicely made, fluffy blinis come decked with blobs of exploding wild salmon eggs, rather more gracious beluga and more cured wild salmon.

Mains include more classic dishes, such as beef stroganoff and a chicken cutlet Pozharski. Shashlyk Po-Potemkinsky, apparently a fave of "horseback warriors", is pork marinaded in red wine and spices. Arriving with onions, peppers and coriander, it's basically a posh kebab. Much better is the spiced poussin with garlic, black pepper and lemon - a sizable, flattened bird with crispy, spiced skin, tender within, best eaten with sleeves rolled up.

Russian coke ("Kvas fizzy") is appealingly made from fermented bread - black, yeasty and reminiscent of root beer. Equally big on yeast is the more successful Lithuanian Utenos beer. In line with tradition, a small 100ml carafe of clear vodka accompanies the meal. Cristall Superlux, the house spirit, as crisp and clean as a glacier, sits within a catalogue of respectable brands.

Unexceptional desserts include a fruit craquant - mousses sandwiching milk chocolate - and come nowhere near previous delights.

Service is very attentive. It is also very fast. No sooner have you swallowed the final morsel of one course, than the next materialises, immediately, even if you're in the loo. Perhaps this is the Russian way of ensuring you eat while there's still food available, but it makes for a somewhat breathless dinner. Still, the four-course meal with service and vodka came to just under £105 for two; a fairly good price for a spanking new eating experience in an increasingly predictable location.

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