Nearly all of Russia is going through a culinary revolution right now. Since the collapse of communism, the restaurant and cafe scenes have had time to grow and blossom. New international food trends are being imported and old Russian recepies rediscovered. Perhaps most improtantly, many Russians are now starting to seek out quality food and service, and these once-famously-dismal aspects of dining out in Russia are rapidly fading away while opportunities of true culinary experiences are growing rapidly. Below are a few “upscale” places that SRAS students have found in Irkutsk that you should try as a way to experience this side of Russia’s changing landscape.
130 Kvartal, Sedovaya 10
Khmelnoe Podvorye is a brew pub, with a big selection of housemade beer, but I wanted to go because I’d heard they also make their own infused vodkas. The name of the place, “Khmelnoe Podvorye” actually translates to “Bitter Compound,” apparently a reference to their drinks specialty.
My teacher at IGU was actually the one who told me about this—during the course of a conversation about how not all Russians like vodka, she started telling me a story about a friend of hers who will only drink vodka, and how, embattled by rain and wind one afternoon, they’d stepped into this restaurant and drank some delicious brusniki vodka. (Brusniki is some kind of red berry; they’re translated as bilberry or cowberry, on the off-chance you’ve heard of those…) So after an afternoon of biking, which involved falling into thorn bushes and almost killing a variety of living beings, including mysel, this sounded fantastic.
This place is upscale and kinda expensive, and there’s almost nothing for vegetarians, as usual. We did all eventually find something, and I think we all managed to cap our expenditures to around $10 each, but I wouldn’t call it a budget place. It was sunny and warm and cheerful, though, full of the noise of people enjoying a good beer, and our big wooden table was comfortable.
My friends both had potatoes with omul, the must-try local fish, while I had a salad with smoked salmon and some potatoes with dill, which I was entirely pleased with. And of course we all got brusniki vodka. We weren’t sure if they’d be cocktails, but they were just little ryumki (рюмки; like shotglasses) with bright red liquid, so basically just straight-up infused vodka. I really liked it—for me it was just sweet enough to distract from the vodka taste. This was far from a universal opinion at my table, though.
Overall, I really liked it here, and definitely hope to go back to investigate their beer situation. I might be more likely to check it out after a cheaper dinner elsewhere, though. (But be careful—they have a 1000-ruble minimum on weekend nights!)
3rd Iulya Street, #3
Rassolnik is a more upscale Russian restaurant in Irkutsk. Located in the trendy 130 Quarter (130 Квартал), it’s Soviet-themed, so that its comfortable seats and white tablecloths are surrounded by old Soviet-era cameras, glasses, posters, and other paraphernalia. There are also screens showing Soviet movies—like Caucasian Prisoner (Кавказская пленница, или Новые приключения Шурика), when I was there. It’s one of Irkutsk’s more popular Russian restaurants; it’s ideal for taking guests and well worth a visit.
The menu is overwhelmingly enormous, and many of the prices may be higher than what you want to pay for an everyday lunch or dinner, but if you look carefully you can definitely find a filling meal for less than $15. The service is pleasant and friendly, and it was a very pleasing cultural experience: I don’t often have “fancy” Russian food, and the Soviet decorations were really fun.
I ordered the delicious rassolnik, of course, with smoked chicken. Rassolnik, the namesake of the establishment is a traditional Russian soup that uses pickle juice as a base. Mine came in a bread bowl, which was exciting even though it was too hard to be entirely edible. I followed it with a main dish of pelmeni stuffed with salmon and carp. It was so good that I now think that all pelmeni should have a fish filling.
The menu also has a whole section of fruit wines from southern Russia. We got the apricot one, which tasted a lot like juice (there was definitely alcohol in it, though). The friends I was with ordered draniki (potato pancakes) with omul, Irkutsk’s local fish, which was a nice twist, though they reported that the omul was not as good as what we had straight out of Baikal in Listvyanka.
– Julie Hersh
Lenina St., 34
The Asador Steak House is located right on Улица Ленина (Ulitsa Lenina, or Lenin Street), not far from the Monument to Lenin, and within easy walking distance from the Linguistic University. Of all the restaurants I’ve been to in Irkutsk, this is easily one of more high-end of-places, and even though this is coming from a poor college student I can say with confidence the value received for the money spent is very good.
I went there with a good friend of mine one evening, and, looking for a fancier experience, we were not disappointed. My first impression was the high quality service. We were directed to the coat room and, as soon as my jacket was taken, we were ushered to the main area of the restaurant, where a selection of different seating arrangements was offered. We chose a simple two-person table, though I was made aware that private booths and even rooms were available, for a price.
The menu was slightly intimidating at first. There is a large emphasis put on steak and different dishes containing steak. This in itself can seem out of the poor-college student league, but the fairly expensive selection of wines made me also momentarily hesitate. While the options were relatively expensive for Irkutsk, they are not completely unworkable, and I was able to make a decision in good time. I chose a burger, because my budget was a bit modest, though I couldn’t help pick a glass of a finer wine than I am used to (finer for me means that it doesn’t come from a box).
The food took some time to prepare, but the waitress provided a consistent presence so that we did not feel forgotten, and the wait was well worth it in the end. I had not had a burger that decent since I left the States. The fries weren’t anything too special, though there was a massive pile of them, and they were filling. The wine was also top notch, and may have given me the first taste of a decent red in my life. My one gripe was being charged for the puny cup of ketchup I asked for, but it should be noted that that’s an industry standard in Russia, including at McDonald’s.
The check was swiftly handed to us upon being asked, and the waiters and waitresses provided friendly faces in their goodbyes. Overall, the experience wasn’t a cheap one, but if you’re looking for someplace to take a date, or even someplace to go to feel fancy, the Asador Steak House in Irkutsk is a worthy choice.
– Lucas Fagre