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Vodka, caviar and city sights in St Petersburg

Taste of Russia

Good vodka brings good dreams, according to St Peterburg’s first vodka sommelier, Alexander Dmitriev, a man passionate about his national drink and keen to dispel unkind myths about the often misunderstood spirit.

His domain is the Caviar Bar and Restaurant in the impressive Belmond Grand Hotel Europe, an institution that wears its heritage impeccably.


Caviar_Vodka

The intimate restaurant is a 19th-century neoclassical design with marble floor and columns, red velvet chairs, polished silver and sparkling crystal plus 50 icy cold vodkas and more than a dozen varieties of fresh Malossol caviar.

Alexander guides guests through the subtleties of vodka tastes accompanied by a caviar degustation while explaining its heritage.

“Vodka is a very special drink and plays a very important part in traditional Russian life and is present at all important ceremonies where it is drunk each time in one mouthful from tiny glasses,” he says.

“We toast to health, family, love and one for the road and it is always taken with tasty snacks — you need to deeply exhale and then drink it in one gulp and, if you drink it correctly, half a minute later you will feel a wonderful heat in your chest.”

Alexander teaches us how to discern the mildness of ‘live’ vodkas made with water from natural springs; his favourite drops are Imperial Collection Gold, filtered with honey, and Imperia and Beluga vodkas from Siberia.

Caviar degustation

Egg-in-Egg

Our caviar degustation starts with the signature dish, Egg in Egg — truffle-flavoured scrambled egg topped with Ossetra caviar. It’s fabulous. Alexander points out the taste nuances of three different caviars, including Beluga, Astrakhan and Sevruga caviar that are served with blinis, sour cream and finely grated hard-boiled egg. I am now a great fan of caviar and have a greater respect for icy cold vodka and its traitors.

This year the Belmond Grand Hotel Europe is celebrating its 140th anniversary with new additions including Azia restaurant where Asian cuisine takes centre stage. But if you prefer classic dishes, step into the enchanting L’ Europe restaurant where more than a century ago Russia’s aristocracy dined in style. It was a time when dazzling diamond tiaras flickered in candlelight as women dressed in sumptuous silk gowns dined and danced the night away with men in bespoke dinner suits.

These days you won’t find diamond tiaras, but discerning food lovers can enjoy an amazing culinary experience in the historic restaurant. Opened in 1905 but closed during the revolution years, L’Europe is Russia’s oldest restaurant and its centrepiece, a magnificent stained-glass window depicting Apollo, still casts its magic over diners.

So why has it survived for so long? It is the cuisine, unique atmosphere and outstanding service, according to frequent diners. “People come from all over the world to dine here, to enjoy the ambience, cuisine and service and they are never disappointed — it’s like turning back the clock to Imperial Russia,” says Moscow-born Marina Petrivo, 63, a devoted fan.

Canadian-born executive chef Ian Minnis has reintroduced the heritage menu from the hotel archives where classic Russian dishes star. Borsch Moscow style — traditional beetroot soup with sliced beef and smoked sausage — Kamchatka crab Romanov style from the Bering Sea and Beef Stroganoff — a 19th-century family recipe of Baroness Hélène de Ludinghausen-Stroganoff — all have a great following. On Friday evenings graceful ballet dancers perform the White Adagio from ‘Swan Lake’ on the stage where Elton John once gave an impromptu concert.

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The magic of St Petersburg

Stroll out into the night, and you’ll soon discover the magic of St Petersburg. With its grand architecture, gilded palaces and orchestrated fountains, this is a city that gets under your skin.

By day, whether you’re standing in front of the magnificent State Hermitage Museum, looking at a diamond-encrusted Fabergé egg in the Fabergé Museum, or admiring the coloured domes of the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, St Petersburg’s beauty almost takes your breath away. Be sure to allow plenty of time to explore inside the State Hermitage Museum to discover its many treasures — you won’t want to miss a thing.

Back at the hotel, we learn there are six stunning new suites including the city’s largest presidential suite overlooking the iconic main street, Nevsky Prospekt — and all come with a 24-hour butler service. The sprawling presidential suite features a stunning gold-leaf domed ceiling, two bedrooms, two marble bathrooms and a sauna. A fitness centre, kitchen, music room with antique Carl Schroeder grand piano and a combined study and library with a secret bookcase door that leads to the main bedroom are deserving of accolades. The five Avant-Garde suites named after famous Russian artists are just as opulent with decor inspired by each artist. Our suite, named after Wassily Kandinsky, features splashes of bright colours that reflect his abstract works.

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Before retiring, I can’t resist a quick stop at the heritage-listed Lobby Bar with its exquisite Art Nouveau decor where I sink into a red-leather chair and order a cocktail worthy of a tsar. Later, memories of a grand dinner, smooth vodka, fine caviar, graceful dancers and sparkling diamond tiaras fill my sleep — like Alexander says, good vodka definitely brings good dreams.

Travel information

Accommodation belmond.com/grand-hotel-europe-st-petersburg
Getting there Emirates and Qantas operate codeshare flights to St Petersburg from Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide or Perth via Dubai.
www.emirates.com www.qantas.com.au
Information www.visit-petersburg.ru/en

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