I’ve frankly never been fond of the word solyanka
. Perhaps it’s the phonetic way the word seems to crudely roll off the tongue when pronounced, or perhaps it brings back those lingering memories from the mid-90’s as a Russian language student living in St. Petersburg and asking my host mom what’s for dinner, only to hear again that it would be a solyanka
of some mysterious sort. As in most kitchens across the world, solyanka
– or stew – is merely a recipe to throw in a pot whatever you can find around the kitchen along with a pinch of salt, a bay leaf and some parsely. In my time I have fished out from various solyankas
various inedible parts of a chicken including a foot, the inevitable sharp chip of bone, a roach, and even once a bolt.
Thus I accepted the invitation to go the new restaurant-bar-club in lower Kitai Gorod with keen curiosity yet perhaps some subconscious trepidation. Still, it was close to my apartment and I needed a good meal. I had recently recovered from food poisoning from a recent trip to Sochi for the recent gargantuan economic forum where everyone is goo-goo and ga-ga for the 2014 Winter Olympics and the gilded dreams of the buckets of money that comes with it (the culprit being a hotel restaurant; a notoriously worse offender than a rynok shwarma stand no matter how many stars on the hotel’s lobby wall). I was still a bit bleary eyed from the late nights at the “unofficial nightclub” of the forum (a surreal Mad Max-meets-Waterworld-meets-Dubai
oil & gas themed club built on a mock offshore oil platform, complete with working oil derricks) and a bit weak from multiple days of a monotonous bread and white rice diet, so I was looking forward to having some real food and moving past my hang-ups over the club’s name – but knew that another chicken foot would do me in for good.
However, just seeing the sign for the club seemed to provide some reassurance. Just the font styling of the word solyanka
in silver letters, something that seemed to resemble the old Zil
label of the old Soviet party cars and ubiquitous Soviet refrigerators, showed some thoughtful design and intellectual ironic flair, a telltale of a smart and creative management - and hopefully cooks - that appreciate the details.
And indeed just the details of the restaurant interior design require some appreciation here. To be fair, solyanka
does not just mean “stew” in the strict food sense, but more of a “mix” in broader descriptive terms. In this case solyanka
means eclectic – very eclectic. The location is an old late 18th century kupecheski
merchant’s mansion, with tall windows and antique ceilings. However, despite this neo-aristocratic setting the interior concept instantly struck me as a modern triangulation of So-Ho, Havana, and London. I think I was somewhat near the mark as the publicity director who came by our table described the place as a convergence of Miami, London, and a classic St. Petersburg apartment.
This seemingly pretentious mixture was balanced out and grounded with a crazy assortment – yet tasteful selection - of used furniture that could have come from Craig’s List, and in fact may inspire fond recollections of that old favorite couch you once had in the basement. The full space had approximately 4-5 rooms, with not one room or chair matching, and even each toilet room in the progressive unisex bathroom was wallpapered in a completely different style (yes, I actually checked). And, like a giant Transformer robot, the main room goes through a metamorphosis at 11pm – changing from an eclectically designed dining area to a theatrically lighted club dance floor complete with a stage and a wall of speakers and video screens. Somehow all of this ad-hoc yet well planned eclectic design concept works, earning kudos to the club’s designer who took the name and theme solyanka
stylishly to heart.
And that’s what is so special about Solyanka
– a theme that both subtly and surprisingly works. It is a restaurant, club, bar, clothing store (still unsure about that element), and gallery – all wrapped up in a packaging of different color wrappings and ribbons. I could have sat there for a while sipping on my beer (200 Rbs) admiring these details, but the menu of course deserves some mention here, too, as the food was the original intent of my visit and my writing here. I did see solyanka
on the menu, although the menu itself is rather a solyanka
of different cuisines ranging from Thai (-ish) with a peanut and coconut milk soup with crab meat (360 Rbs), an attempt at Southwest fusion with a chicken and mango quesadilla (230 Rbs) to reliable Russian standbys such as beet vinaigrette (190). However, before digging into these and other goodies, the waitress brought out cut carrot sticks, each in its own shot glass of very flavorful ginger sauce, to whet our appetites as compliments from the chef. A basket of bread then came out along with arranged buttered spoons – cleverly arranged silver spoons full of creamy butter – as another unique prelude to the meal, which made me feel as we were getting a bit buttered up ourselves.
I was in desperate need of flavor after days of bread and rice, and the Thai peanut and coconut milk soup with crab meat delivered in that department. The soup indeed had real crab meat, confirmed by the occasional bit of crab shell, and was quite tasty – albeit a bit salty and a bit thick. The chicken and mango quesadilla fell a little short of the mark as the mangos were not yet ripe enough for cooking, making them a bit bland and too firm. My date – who by the way was not so enamored with the hip collection of Craig’s List furniture but rather hooked by the in-restaurant clothing boutique “Twins” (yeah, really owned by twin sisters. Go after you eat, otherwise you may not have money for even a buttered spoon) – seemed satisfied with the vinaigrette, although it is hard to go wrong with that recipe but still challenging to make it too exciting (unless you throw in some goat cheese and pine nuts like one yummy restaurant in Moscow, nameless here).
For main courses we perused through the seafood items with interest including dorado (460 Rbs), steamed salmon (330 Rbs), and tuna steak (170 Rbs), quickly skipped over the pig leg (270 Rbs) and rib eye (680 Rbs), and settled on the risotto (280 Rbs) for the fashion loving lady and black squid ink spaghetti (490 Rbs) for the funky-furniture loving gentleman. The risotto was quite good but square and just a small step up from my recent rice recovery diet. I still am not sure what to make of the spaghetti as it seemed to be a combination of the soup and appetizer I had just ate. There was peanut sauce, bits of crab meat and crab shell, cilantro, and I swear some unripe pieces of mango. Was this actually the chef’s special solyanka
by another name?
I admire bold and innovative dishes and the chefs that create them (we were told the chef had worked at the Hyatt Ararat), but this mixed solyanka
was not as successful as the mix of interior decoration surrounding us. My taste buds were still feeling a little uninspired, but were awoken by an excellent vanilla creme-brule for dessert that had a perfect crispy, caramelized blow-torched crust. Yum.
We stuck around for a while to see the place transition from restaurant to nightclub. When we arrived at 8pm we were nearly the only clientele, but around 11pm people began trickling in. Given the relative emptiness inside at the time, we were a bit surprised to see a long line outside when we finally left outside the velvet rope. Yes, even a place with a name like Solyanka
prides itself in its face control.
I left Solyanka
more impressed with the interior and concept than the kitchen, but have already made it a local stop for drinks and creme-brule. Definitely worth checking out when in the Kitai Gorod area, even if for a business lunch (270 RBS) on weekdays if you have some business in Kitai Gorod other than clubbing on the weekends. Solyanka
– a great club that knows life is in the details, and not afraid to experiment with peanut sauce. Thursday - hip-hop night, Friday - techno, and Saturday - Nu-Rave. See you there.