Ethnic foods dominate Russia's restaurant scene

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The late-model Subaru went flying through the narrow streets of St. Petersburg like a scene from the thriller “Gorky Park.” But my Russian friend and I were chasing hunger, not murderers, and our destination was worth the rush.

Yes, folks, Russian food can make your heart skip a beat and your car skip a curb, thanks to its new array and quality.

When perestroika gave way to capitalism in 1991, the old Soviet Union turned into Russia and 15 republics, stretching from the Black Sea to the Mongolian border. Russia’s exploding restaurant scene has representatives from nearly all 15.

Suddenly, major cities such as St. Petersburg are rife with ethnic food. If you don’t think food from a former Soviet republic is considered ethnic, then you’ve never dug your fingers into an entire salted cod and chased it with vodka as I once did in a Caucasian restaurant in Moscow.

That’s “Caucasian” as in “Caucasus Mountains,” in southwest Russia, not “rural Utah.”

But it’s food from Georgia, a former Soviet republic, that has become the center of the Russian ethnic-food scene.

Nothing can convince Russians that Georgian cuisine is the finest — not even war between the two countries.

My friend’s car finally stopped in front of Tbiliso, his favorite Georgian restaurant in St. Petersburg. Like many Russian establishments, it was bland on the outside. Inside, though, booths were separated by curtains with lithographs of old Georgian war veterans. Waiters dashed around wearing the native garb of black trousers and gold tunics that looked like bad Nehru jackets from the ’60s.

Main Georgian dishes are a tantalizing array of meats grilled on an open flame with influences from the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Grapes. Pomegranates. Ground walnuts. Saffron. Many homemade cheeses. They’re all thrown in various national dishes such as basturma (grilled meat), khinkali (stuffed dumplings) and chikhirtma (lemony chicken soup).

Georgia was known as the Tuscany of the Soviet Union, as its wines were among the best in the world. However, so many fakes have infiltrated the Russian market that the waiter said Georgian wine has been banned.

It was the only disappointment in an evening of great, food. And peace.