Teremoking in Saint Petersburg
It’s a glorious spring day in Saint Petersburg, Russia, and the bright restaurant is over half full. Yuri Milokovich pulls a chair out from an unoccupied table, motions to his companion to sit, and queues up in the short line for service.
“Come on, don’t be a snob,” he says over his shoulder. “This is real comfort food – clean, fresh, and wholesome. Not to mention, it doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg.”
Hearing his fluent, if heavily accented English, the neatly dressed girl behind the counter smiles brightly.
“Welcome to Teremok,” she says, and hands him an English menu.
Yuri smiles back but orders in Russian.
“I’ll have the SV with cilantro, borscht and a Balitica 7.”
He nods towards his companion, a pretty but patently American girl wearing a stylish Princess Cruises windbreaker.
“She’ll have the Email, Grechka Kasha, and a Medovukho.”
He’d ordered a blini – something like a cross between crepes and pancakes stuffed with ham and cheese, onion and beetroot soup, and a large beer for himself; and a blini vegetarian wrap stuffed with mushrooms and cream cheese, buckwheat cereal, and honey beer for his friend.
After a moment’s hesitation, he turns back to the counter and adds dessert to the order – a sweet blini with cloudberries, and Syrniki, deep fried cottage cheese fritters with strawberry compote.
Teremok has a chain of over 300 outlets between Moscow and Saint Petersburg, and reaching to Ural, Southern Russia, and Siberia. They range in size from street kiosks and food court cubicles to well lit restaurants atop business centres and malls. A bold soiree into New York City to plant the Teremok banner on American soil a few years back should have worked, but didn’t. Alas. New York’s loss.
Their menu is an eclectic mix of comfort food, seasonal dishes, some luxury items, and occasionally – wildly inventive specials. They cook everything fresh and to order, but in no time at all, Yuri returns to the table with two trays loaded with lunch.
“Voila. Real food, for real Russians.”
His companion smiles. “Merci,” she says. “Looks wonderful!”
Yuri nods his head in agreement. “It does, doesn’t it? You know, you Americans waste too much time pretending that you are Anthony Bourdain, eating stinky tofu, guzzling booze, and cursing like sailors,” he says, setting down the trays and taking a seat. He nods at his companion, and smiles. “No offence.”
She smiles back, looks pointedly at his half-quart of beer, and lifts her glass of Medovukho. “None taken.”
But Yuri is on a roll. “Or Andrew Zimmern, “You know, normal people don’t really eat blood pudding, crawling cheese, bull testicles, and worms,” he says, and theatrically suppresses a shudder.
She tries a bite of blini. “Mmmm. This is really good.” She takes a sip of the honey beer. “Wow, very refreshing.”
“And the Grechka Kasha?”
She takes a bite of the buckwheat porridge, chews deliberately, and sets down her spoon. “No offence, but I think I’d prefer blood pudding.”
Yuri holds up his hands in mock amazement, switches his bowl of borscht with the girl’s kasha, and grins. “None taken.”
Almost by definition, comfort food is an acquired taste.
And that’s really the point. Comfort food is all about what you grew up with. Or wish you had. I still prefer thin-sliced calf’s liver fried crisp and cooked all the way through, and smothered in onions – just like my mom used to make. Although I have progressed beyond the over-cooked vegetables (grey green beans, or boiled to mush green peas that as often as not accompanied the liver – or meat loaf, or stewed chicken).
But when I’m in Russia? I head for the nearest Teremok (Тeрeмоқ in Cyrillic) – bright, cheerful, and accommodating. Fresh and seasonal – “fast food” only by virtue of the fact that you don’t have to wait long before your order is filled. A glass of kvass, a savory blini, maybe a bowl of beet soup, maybe a salad, and definitely dessert. It’s all good.
Russian-style home cooking. Fresh, natural, and healthy comfort food. Real food, for real Russians? Again, maybe. But I’d say it’s real food, for real people.
Cover by Antoine K, inset by the author