A midwinter's night dream

A midwinter's night dream

Everybody I know wants to see St. Petersburg.

But for most, they think about the white nights of early summer, when the daylight seems to be ever present. To visit the city in the darkest days of December may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but believe me, it is the winter season that suits St. Petersburg best.

The city with its thick-walled grand buildings is armored against stark cold, so are its citizens. On my recent visit to the city last week, it was not that cold, not enough to feel the chill in my bones. I wish it was colder, hoping it would be snowing too, just to get into the fairytale-like snowy winter mood.

Alas, the cold only hit when it was time to leave the city, but I had already a fairy-tale like mood, thanks to a three-day dining marathon with an amazing array of dishes, all with a story to tell, all being thought-provoking yet amusing creations stemming from Russia’s culinary heritage.

Our dining venue was CoCoCo restaurant. Opened in 2012, now already at its second location, SO Sofitel Hotel, and planning to be moved to the newly restored New Holland Island complex, the restaurant has already made into The World’s 50 Best Restaurants List ranking 104.

Last September, I was lucky to follow chef Igor Grishechkin at the GastroAntep organization, where Kristian Brask Thomsen spotted my fascination with his presentation. Kristian is a man of all talents, known for his lavish organizations in gastronomic circles as Ambassador Bon-Vivant, he surely knows to put his finger on the pulse of world’s latest culinary scenes.

Thanks to Kristian’s scanning eye, I ended up in St. Petersburg to experience the creations of chef Igor Grishechkin in his own kitchen.

The emblem of CoCoCo (or KoKoKo in Russian writing) is a chicken and the name of the restaurant comes from the universal sound of hens. That is key to understand the basis of restaurant’s creation.

I understood that on the very first morning when I opted for the deeply flavorful and miraculously restoring chicken broth served in an old-style Russian tea glass with an embossed brass holder. It was sublime and very restorative I must say after a night of vodka shots. I’m sure the broth tasted exactly like the broth Igor’s grandmother prepared back in his childhood years in Smolensk.

A free-range chicken right from the hencoop to the table is what all CoCoCo is about, being decidedly local using the best and freshest seasonal ingredients directly procured from farmers and local producers.

That is actually the core story of how the restaurant was born, when Matilda Shnurova spotted that talented chef at LavkaLavka, a farmer’s cooperative focusing on local Russian produce.

Shnurova was already a business entrepreneur that opened the successful ballet school Isadora. It must be noted that she was already a celebrity then, being one part of the power couple, married to rock star Sergey Shnurova, from Russia’s leading popular rock band Leningrad. Now divorced, but from the very start, she paved her own path and created her own business.

Her heart was in food, and she totally believed in the slow-food way of approach to elevate the Russian gastronomy to another level.

She had this spotting eye when she discovered the talent of Igor, both having strong belief in their own childhood memories from their Babushka’s kitchens, all lovingly prepared with ingredients, sometimes not so varied, but always natural and fresh, but all bearing stories meaningful to Russian countryside.

Igor’s cooking totally reflects that each single dish from the breakfast menu to the tasting fine-dining menu reflects a part of Russian culture, telling tales of Russia’s history with his dishes.

From the opulent era of the Romanovs, over the Communist Soviet Union, there is a reflection of Russian collective memory. When I first heard about the gem-like caviar-egg amuse-bouche presented in a Fabergé egg with a sliver of real gold leaf, I thought it was a bit over-the-top, fit for the wild dining scene of oligarchs, but to admit it was a subtle dainty dish, very tasty, meticulously prepared with a jeweler’s precision.

It was silently paying homage to the Tsarist Russia, nodding a gentle salute to the city’s great past. Contrasting the finesse of the Fabergé egg, his kasha, the buckwheat grit essential to each Russian child’s upbringing, is as rustic as it can get, just like the breakfast chicken broth, it must be one of the tastiest versions ever.

Because of the harsh climate, Russian cuisine is rich in dried, fermented, pickled and preserved products, so the restaurant also features a lot of this culinary heritage, changing and adopting its menu up to fifteen times a year, using what is rightful to use in the season. The desserts are worth another article, all with great storytelling, perhaps because our fondest childhood memories are always centered around something sweet.

Ranging from the grandma’s smashed flower pot (the most Instagrammed dessert in Russia) to the piggy bank filled with strawberry marshmallow, from the gingerbread (my favorite) to popcorn ice cream, last but not least dancing ballerina, all are great works of art, not only visually but also taste-wise masterpieces. On our first night, everybody at the table ended up picking another favorite dessert, apparently each hitting a soft spot in their own childhood memories.

Once our former ambassador to Moscow said to me, “If there is one nation that will rival the Turkish on hospitality, it must be the Russians.” That is true. They have a generous heart, though seemingly hard to penetrate, once you are in their home, a whole world opens for you.

When I was heading for the airport it was icy cold, the sunlight was bright but only to wash the icy pavements shining with a golden glow to emphasize the thin coating of ice on stones. It was really cold, but my heart was warm, feeling gracious for the infamous Russian hospitality.

Our hosts Igor and Matilda made us embark on a midwinter night’s dream, thanks to their humble welcoming we were right in their kitchen. But the storytelling does not end here. There is another story, episode two: The story of one of the most successful four-hand dinners I attended, where Ana Roš of Hiša Franko from Slovenia was the guest chef to CoCoCo to cook with Igor Grishechkin.

They were like two silent streams gently uniting to flow like a powerful river.