Sunday, 25 September 2011

[Restaurant - Russian] Honest to Goodness, and Kvass!; Samovar Cafe of Bayswater

Location - Queensway, London [UK]

Why end a good thing? Despite the exorbitance of the preceding days, the slight exuberant alcohol consumption of the evening before, and the absolutely decadent breakfast in the morning, I figured there was still scope for a little exploration for lunch. After all, I had regained some sanity with a healthy helping of saurkraut and octopus salad for my mid-morning snack, so, permission granted. 

As luck would have it, strolling around the hotel area in the morning to locate a cash point for breakfast, I came across a sign pertaining to a restaurant that I had recently been made aware of reading an article on The Guardian's food section. Being of a type of cuisine that I had almost no experience of, thus required to try, and of being so opportunely local, I immediately started hatching plans of fitting in lunch. The only issue being that it was currently 7:30AM, and lunch was but a while away. That and I also had a friend to have to consider for. Hmph. Fortunately though, with his predictable hibernation-esque sleeping pattern, and finding some time to burn away in the meantime, it was established to entertain a Russian lunch.

Arriving at the shop, we were indicated that the cafe' was actually down a gallery in an indoor market, which  soon brought about the annoying predilection for prejudice - this place was a ghetto. Undeterred, and offering vain notions that we would not get shot, I persisted, and once seated, a quick glance at the menu was all that was needed to immediately feel comforted. Despite the best efforts of the torturous devices masquerading as table chairs.

~ Starters ~
- Shuba

Not quite sure what I was ordering, though knowing it consisted of herring was rather hoping it was the pickled herring I wanted to try, I was presented with this rather fabulously coloured dish. On seeing it, I did recognise the dish, and promptly commenced with the beetroot drenched fish. First bite revealed quite a heavy, creamy base with just a light sweetness of the beetroot permeating through, with its slight acidity picking its way through. Digging deeper revealed yet another level of vegetables, with some hearty carbohydrates from the shredded potato mixing with some slight vinegary notes of some pickled vegetables, not that I could distinguish them within this slab. After a few bites I finally came to the herring, which made itself rather known with its strong aroma, which was very well balanced out by the heaviness of the cream enriched potatoes, and the pickled vegetables serving to perk up this rather heavy of dishes. 

Heavy, but delightful. Despite the omnipresence of the cream/mayonnaise, it did not phase or render the dish overly rich in the slightest, especially with the presence of the herring. The gentle sweetness of the beetroot as well complimented the abundance of vegetables, serving to make the dish rather moreish. 

~ Main Course ~
- Fried Grundinka Pork with Kasha

Choices for the main course were rather limited unfortunately, and the Fried Pork dish was the only one that had a Russian titling in its name, and despite being asked if I were sure I wanted this dish, being told that it was "fat", I persisted. And it had to come with kasha, to further delve into this most Russian sounding of dishes. And then a plate came with fried pork belly, some microwaved baked beans, a heaping of the kasha and some pickled cabbage. Glamour had left the building. Not that I was concerned, as it certainly looked honest. Working myself around, I started with the cabbage, which was much like saurkraut both in appearance, and in taste, though a bit milder. A bit of the kasha revealed a mild tasting yet substantial grain, with no real pertinent flavour, not that I was expecting much. The Grudinka next, which was essentially, belly pork. Being just pan-fried, it tasted as it looked, a bit like gammon, which can never be a negative, ever. The beans do not require their separate tasting. 

In separation, everything was distinctly honest, not that the cafe's aesthetics would lend to think otherwise. Combining the components just introduced comforting elements to one another. The cabbage would add a welcome acidity to cut through the greasiness of the pork, whilst the kasha would serve to add a hearty substance to each bite. The beans were also pleasant, adding their element of breakfast for lunch when combined with the pork in particular. Not a spectacularly different sort of dish, but pleasing in its simplicity nevertheless.  

~ Dessert ~
- Syrniki

Its cheese, and its a dessert. Two v's for victory. A dish I have been meaning to try for as long as I yearned for Russian food, which is not terribly long. And a perfect basing as a Russian friend has exclaimed that I must try his Grandmothers' versions, all the more reason to try some more. Though presented with just three roundels of cheese may seem disappointing, at this point I had welcomed the slightly diminutive portion, not that blocks of fried cheese are generally served at many restaurants. Composed of fried quark cheese, covered in smetana [sour cream] and I think a plum compote, I started firstly with a piece of just the cheese. It has dense in texture yet lightly flavoured, slightly greasy from the frying obviously, with a light milky essence. A bit staid on its own but pleasant enough, so now with some of the smetana, which rather predictably added its sharp tang and softened the greasiness of the cheese. Again however, the flavours were mellow. Which would change entirely with the addition of the compote. 

The slight sweetness of the fruit combined perfectly. Its sweetness perked up the relative heaviness of the cream and cheese, its own sharpness balancing well with that of the smetana. The compote was devastatingly effective, transforming the separate components into a delicious combination of sweet, sharpness, a slight sourness and plenty of milky, creamy decadence. Devoured so quickly I only managed to remember to take a picture when indicated by my friend. Now. I need to try the Russians' Grandmothers' syrniki, for research sake obviously. 

~ Drinks ~
- Kvass!

Actually, it was more of a lower key Kvass, without an exclamation mark, my hopes and dreams instantly destroyed when the soft drinks bottle was presented, dashing my hopes of a mug of liquid rye bread, complete with crust. Regardless, it was kvass, and at last I would get a sampling of a drink that has been a torment of obsession for as long as syrniki have been. And, remembering it was a soft drink, it was ok. Not particularly distinctive, though there was a curious highlight which my friend remarked seemed like root beer, which I would be inclined to agree with. A slight "spice" really. Otherwise it was thoroughly neutered, sugared, and absolutely bad for being a soft drink and all its inherent healthy nullity. Not that its sampling has given me much hope in trying to base a comparison with, though I will probably find it difficult to find many "authentic" variants within London. Bah.


Emerging from the cafe with nary a gun-wound, and completely satisfied, I came away if slightly less than enlightened, at least quietly content. With the complete dearth of actual experience of the foods, I can only surmise in my ignorance just how close to authenticity I was getting. Suffice it to say, being in the location that it is, the prevalence, or rather, fact that all other diners were Russian [speaking at least], I would think it is rather a locale for the locals rather than some yappy eat-all like myself. As much as told from the surprise on the face of the waitress as I ordered all the traditional dishes I could, kind of endearing. The experience was very much one of honesty; whilst the food in its essence was basic, there was no superficiality or extraneous distractions from the dishes. It was honesty in simplicity, in appearance and flavour. Big flavours, hearty natures, it was all feel-good food. Possibly the last thing needed after my own personal excesses of late, but, I am not phased.

A sign of the honesty was also a cause of amusement, I had never seen bread offered at a restaurant, for 7p. Yes, Seven Pence. Maybe in Soviet Russia bread, is just bread, and not a gift sent from a divinity and priced as such. Mind you, by the time the bill arrived, the amounted cost of the rather delectable rye bread, had quadrupled. To 28p. How they very dared contradict their honesty in food was a transgression forgiven however. Whilst it would be hopeful at best to attempt to bring my Russian friend here, for fear of getting his Louis Vuitton shoes dirty - not that I can talk - I feel what experience we did get here was at least indicative of some staple Russian food. Not that I would know. Though I am more than intent on finding out through more experiences. Especially with real Kvass!


  1. My favorite Russian dish is that main dish with fried pork belly and cabbages. It mixes all the salty, sour and sweet taste of pork, cabbages and the kasha. And most of all, it keeps my stomach full!

    Hamish Liddell

    1. Especially if you eat it all. Stomach ruptures and everything. In a good way though.