The alternative name of this article was “The time I dined alone at the most talked about restaurant of Saint Petersburg”, but I decided that me struggling to keep my face straight while having a fancy fine-dining experience is not as fun as me complaining about $4 bread, so here we go.
For some reason, $4 doesn’t sound as bad as 250 rubles. Maybe it’s all about perspective. For 250 rubles one can buy six loaves of bread in Russia. One can also have a three-course dinner at a canteen. And here I am paying 250 rubles for the bread I didn’t even order. I mean… I ordered salo (which is pork fat if you are wondering) and when the waiter asked: “Would you like to have bread with that?” I, of course, said yes, because when one gets a plate full of thinly sliced cured fat, one might need something more substantial to put it on. The thought that you are eating fat — just fat on its own — is a little terrifying.
And so the bread comes first. Three neatly cut, rather thick slices of dark rye in a basket lined with fabric and a tiny plate of butter sprinkled with pepper to accompany it. I kinda start to realize by now that this bread is gonna cost me, but I go with the flow. Because I am at, possibly, the fanciest and, definitely, the most talked about restaurant of Saint Petersburg all by myself and it’s awkward enough to just sit there quietly in the corner, let alone let the waiter know that, hey! $4 for bread is crazy house (although I did once pay $11 for a loaf of bread in San Francisco. I am a mad woman, what can I say).
Don’t get me wrong, I knew where I was going. After all, Cococo is where the cool kids hang out these days, where Anthony Bourdain went on his Parts Unknown trip to Russia, and where the concept of modern Russian, farm-to-table, seasonal food was first introduced in the country.
Almost three years ago, when I just started blogging I wrote about the sad and weird Russian obsession with Italian and Japanese cuisines to the point where a restaurant would feature both pizza and sushi in the same menu. Today, Russian cuisine is going through its Renaissance and I am delighted that there are creators like Igor Grishechkin, the head chef of Cococo, who are not afraid of using Borodinsky bread, sprats and buckwheat in their kitchens.
After years of denying our roots and looking toward the West for ideas and ingredients, we are finally embracing Russia’s rich history and culture to create something of our own, Russian through and through. It feels amazing. It also feels a little sad that I don’t live in Russia at these exciting times, and can only immerse into exploring the new, revived Russian cuisine on my short trips back home.
This should explain why I was all by myself at Cococo. I had four days in Saint Petersburg, and it was either embracing fine dining in solitude or missing out on “kasha iz topora” that I was dreaming of since I first saw it on Instagram. I hate to say that Instagram brought me to Cococo, but there’s no denying that many a dish on the menu were meant to become instant Instagram hits. Think: creme brûlée shaped as cameo pendant and chocolate dessert that looks like a broken pot with a flower.
To understand “kasha iz topora”, or “porridge made of an axe” in literal translation, one has to know Russian folklore. There’s an old fairy-tale about a soldier who happened to stay at the house of two greedy villagers. When told there’s no food at the house, the soldier offered to prepare a porridge of an axe, and the couple happily agreed. Can you guess where I am going with this? The soldier boiled axe in water for a while before asking for just a little bit of salt, and a tiny amount of grains, and only a table spoon of butter until the pot was overflowing with rich hearty porridge, and everyone was happy to eat “kasha iz topora”.
At Cococo, Igor Grishechkin revived the old story in the most visually pleasing way possible by serving green buckwheat kasha with porcini and stewed beef cheeks in a Russian-style ceramic pot with an actual tiny axe made of butter dyed with squid ink. One has to stir kasha with an axe until the butter blade fully dissolves. How do you not post this on Insta stories?
I’ve come across comments on Instagram that claim Saint Petersburg is the Hermitage, Mariinsky theater and Cococo. The art of architecture and painting, the art of ballet and the art of food. Something tells me, though, that the original quote was “Saint Petersburg is the Hermitage, Mariinsky theater and shawarma”, I guess the choice of wording depends on the time of the day, the amount of money in one’s wallet and the state of soberness.
I have done both on my last trip to the Northern capital: 2 am shawarma at a hole-in-the-wall joint with homeless people drinking vodka next to me and dining at Cococo with waiters in crystal-white shirts taking good five minutes to explain how my kasha was made. The food was stupid good at both places, but while homeless drunk people can always scooch over to create space for you, at Cococo you’ll need a reservation.
I realize now that while my intention was to share my fine-dining experience with you, I ended up comparing it to shawarma, telling stories from Russian folklore and complaining about the price of the bread. This is why I don’t write reviews. This is definitely not a review. This article is nothing but obvious proof that I am clearly still not over that $4 bread, even three months later. I think Cococo is amazing, though, I hope you read it between the lines.
Cococo — 6, Voznesensky Prospekt, Saint Petersburg