The Exciting Vegetarian Restaurant Scene in St Petersburg, Russia
St. Petersburg’s vegetarian scene has improved dramatically in the past 2 years. Russia is still not vegetarian-friendly, and Russian vegetarians have a lot of work remaining to overcome years of official anti-vegetarian socialization (see, e.g., this 2012 St. Petersburg Times article where government officials erroneously criticize the healthiness of a vegetarian diet). Still, vegetarian restaurants are proliferating across Europe, and St. Petersburg has caught the wave.
I didn’t make it back to Café Botanika, St. Petersburg’s leading vegetarian restaurant, but I did try three other vegetarian restaurants:
Troitsky Most. This is St. Petersburg’s venerable vegetarian institution, and its only vegetarian chain. I went to the Moika Canal location, just a block off Nevsky Prospekt. While the restaurant is vegetarian-friendly, their menu is old-school and not vegan-friendly. Most of the dishes had dairy, such as their flagship lasagna. Worse, the server didn’t speak English, making it difficult to navigate the menu. I tried a cold garbanzo bean salad and savory “broccoli wheat” pancakes with sour cream, neither of which were remarkable. Cost for this modest meal was about $5. The restaurant decor was atmospheric, but the food wasn’t worth a second visit, especially in light of the alternatives.
Rada and K. This busy and large cafeteria-style restaurant mostly caters to a student crowd. They claim to offer Indian cuisine, and optically most dishes looked like Indian food, but it didn’t taste like Indian food–at all. No matter. If you don’t expect it to taste like Indian food, the food tasted fine if a little bland. As usual, the server had limited English capabilities, so navigating the cafeteria line wasn’t easy. I got a chicken “curry” with a large mound of kasha, a big bowl of “dal,” a potato pierogi (?) and a “curried” cous-cous salad. (I ordered so much food because this was both lunch and dinner). My taste buds didn’t sing, but the food was filling and satisfying, so I’d consider the meal a success. Cost for this two-meals-in-one was about $12.
Café Ukrop (a photo of the storefront). (Ukrop is the Russian word for dill, though I didn’t notice an excessive use of dill at the restaurant). This is two restaurants in one. The first floor is casual with ordering out of a deli case. Upstairs is a charming sit-down restaurant, tastefully decorated with modern and festive fixtures. They claimed to have an English language menu, but no copies were available on my visit. Instead, one of the servers spoke competent English and patiently explained each menu choice to me. There were numerous vegan options, and they are separately identified on the menu.
I ordered a “Mexican” barley soup, raspberry-cherry dumplings and apple strudel—ALL VEGAN. The Mexican soup was bland and uninspired. It was thin on the barley and had no Mexican-style spicing at all; I presume what made it “Mexican” was some parsley. The dumplings were amazing. The humble-looking and plain dumplings were filled with cherries and raspberries and then covered with a raspberry drizzle. Though the dumplings sound like a dessert, they were savory. The berry sourness with a little sweetness mixed with the plain dumplings worked incredibly well—the flavors were sophisticated, nuanced and unexpected. Recommended. The apple strudel was very good and I had a hard time believing that it was vegan (though the English-speaking server repeatedly confirmed that they were). Overall, the combination of the lovely décor and the successful vegan dishes made this restaurant a must-visit on any vegetarian tour of St. Petersburg.
Others. Based on the Happy Cow listing, I also sought out Chisty List, a bar in an obscure location at the cul-de-sac of an out-of-the-way street. Though Happy Cow said they were open 24 hours, they stop serving food at 11 pm, and I arrived too late to try it. I would have ordered food to-go in any case, as the place was very smoky and my low-fashion attire apparently offended the other patrons.
There were a dozen other vegetarian restaurants I didn’t try this trip, plus numerous other long-standing vegetarian-friendly restaurants such as The Idiot (which I don’t recommend in light of other better and cheaper options) or Tandoor (which offers real Indian food, not the Rada and K bastardization, though at a premium price). Overall, the combination of strong vegetarian options like Café Botanika and Café Ukrop with the proliferation of other options has finally made St. Petersburg into a city that vegetarians can enthusiastically visit.