Russian Food in St. Petersburg
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Ever wondered what Russian food is really like? I’ve had dozens of versions of borscht at home in the U.S., but do any of them actually resemble the real thing in Russia? Is a piroshky in Russia the same as the ones I get from the Pirosky, Pirosky shop in Seattle’s Pike Place Market? Is Russian vodka really the best in the world?

I knew I had to plan our short time in St. Petersburg wisely in order to get all of my food questions answered in just two days. Impossible, you say?

Since we were there on a cruise, we were able to get cruise-specific visas to visit the city, without the usual expense and tedium of securing our own visa, but the special visa required us to stay with a guide during our entire stay. That wasn’t a problem, as I prefer to have a guide along to show us the things we wouldn’t find on our own and to help with translation, but it did mean that in order to do a food-centric tour, we needed to break from the traditional shore excursions that find a company who would help us customize our trip to include food and drink.

In order to get just what we wanted in St. Petersburg, we had to get creative and plan our own private excursion. I was afraid that would involve spending even more than the already exorbitant tour prices. A typical 2-day excursion on a group trip with at least 15 other tourists aboard a big tour bus costs on average $300 per person. A private tour was obviously going to cost way more than that, right?

Luckily, while wading through the wrong tours, I came upon St. Petersburg Essential Guide. Essential Guide is run by an Italian expat, Davide Castellucci and partner Anastasia, who saw an opportunity to provide personalized tours with experienced local guides, including off-the-beaten-path options like the gastronomic tour I happened across on their website. Instead of spending two days being shuffled along with dozens of others to the “essential” museums, palaces and cathedrals, we were able to completely customize our tour, down to the very last detail.

Of course we threw in most of the traditional St. Petersburg stops too, like St. Isaac’s Cathedral, Church of our Savior on Spilled Blood, Peter & Paul Fortress, and a canal tour.

With Davide’s help, we planned a two-day itinerary that included a visit to two of the city’s farmer’s markets, lunch at a top Russian restaurant, a vodka tasting and museum tour, lunch at an Uzbek restaurant and a tour of the popular Eliseevskiy Food Hall.

We ate a lot during our two days in St. Petersburg, but I did get answers to my Russian food questions, so it was a huge success. See what we found out:

Borscht & Beef Stroganoff

Our first food stop was at a Russian restaurant called Masha & the Bear (Masha I Medved). This restaurant served all the traditional dishes we were dying to try. We ordered borscht, croquettes, beef stroganoff, Russian beer and even some wine from Crimea. We’ve all had a bowl of borscht at one time in our lives, right? The last one I had was at a food event in Seattle where a local restaurant was serving it cold with sour cream on top. The soup itself was a bright pink, beet-flavored puree. Thinking back, I believe every version of borscht I’ve ever had was pureed. Apparently this is the way Americans think it’s served, but alas, it’s not.

Borscht is not a thick puree with overwhelming beet flavor. It’s actually more like cabbage and onions swimming around in a light beet broth. It has a slight, but not overwhelming beet flavor. I was never a big fan of borscht before, but now that I’ve tried the authentic Russian version, I’ve changed my mind. It’s delicious.

The beef stroganoff was also incredibly delicious. It was a thick casserole with noodles, beef, onions, mushrooms and creamy sauce all mixed happily together. Very similar to what I’ve had at home but slightly thicker and more flavorful. I could have eaten heaps of it.

Pelmeni VS Piroshky

What’s a pelmeni? What’s the difference between a pierogi and a piroshky? This was the hardest question to get answered in St. Petersburg. I’m not sure anyone knows the answers for sure. There are too many versions and variations of each to keep them all straight!

I hadn’t heard the name pelmeni before, but I believe it’s the Russian form of a pierogi. A pelmeni is a dumpling or dough filled with potato or ground meat and then boiled and served with melted butter or another topping like fried onions. The only difference I can see between these and a pierogi is the shape of the dough. Pelmeni are often in a circular form, more like tortelloni.

Piroshky are a hand-held meat pie filled with a variety of different meats, vegetables or sweet filling and then baked or fried. Some are very similar to an empanada. But then there are larger meat pies, like the ones we had at Stolle. They can be called Stolles, but I think they’re really just a larger version of Piroshky. Or are they large pierogis? I still don’t know. The meat filling – fish, beef or chicken is stuffed into the center of the pastry and then sliced to the size you order. We had one stuffed with salmon and one stuffed with rabbit and raisins.

Beer & Wine

Masha & the Bear had a pretty good wine list, but most of the wine was from outside Russia. On the suggestion of the server, we ordered a red wine that is made in Crimea from Inkerman Winery. It was good – full body and slight fruitiness that paired very well with our food. Nick also tried the beer they had on tap to see how it compared with the world-class Northwest beer we’re so used to. Over the two days, he tried two different beers and liked them both. They were lacking the strong hoppiness that is ubiquitous with the Northwest, but I’ve never thought that was a bad thing. I can’t type out the names of the beer (since I don’t have a Russian keyboard), so I’ll just post pictures of them both.

Russian Vodka

I’ve tried many Russian vodkas, some of them probably much lesser quality than I care to admit, so I wasn’t sure if I would know what a good Russian vodka would be like and/or if I could tell a difference between it and other vodkas I’m accustomed to like Grey Goose. We visited the Vodka Room for a tasting and a guided tour through the vodka museum.

We tried four different vodkas along with a traditional Russian snack. This was the first time we encountered the rye bread with fish open-faced sandwich, but we quickly learned that this “snack” is served all over Northern Europe – Scandinavia and the Baltics. I’m not too fond of it, unfortunately, and every time it showed up on a food tour during our trip I became less and less willing to eat it. But when in Russia! The vodka was all very smooth and each had different slight nuances like honey and vanilla that we picked up on. I’m not sure I can say that it’s different or better than what I’m used to, but it was definitely the highest-quality Russian vodka I’ve tasted.

We were also booked at the Vodka Museum Restaurant for dinner, but were unable to eat anymore by so early in the evening, but I’ve been told that the restaurant there is very good (if touristy).

Eliseevskiy Food Hall

Along Nevsky Prospekt is an elaborate foodie dream store, called Eliseevskiy Food Hall, which was opened in 1902 by the Elisseeff Brothers and restored to its original glory in 2012. The food hall has 7 departments – a bakery, cheese counter, charcuterie, caviar, wine and tea, plus all manner of sweets – chocolates, candies, marzipan and macaroons. You could get lost in there for hours looking at all the delicious treats. We also discovered that there are two restaurants in the shop. Downstairs is a casual, traditional restaurant, while upstairs is fine dining.

Russian Food Markets

Our gastronomic tour continued with a visit to two of the city’s top food markets. These type of markets were set up in the Soviet Era and have continued today as an easy way for locals to buy and sell produce and goods. They are housed in large, non-descript buildings with very little fanfare. There are dozens of vendors at each selling all types of produce, meats, spices and dried fruits. Although the markets were not as busy this time of year, it was an interesting way to see local life in St. Petersburg. While many cities are turning to large food markets as a way to enhance the community and entice tourists, these markets were genuine local markets where tourists don’t typically appear.

Uzbek Food

For lunch on the second day, Davide suggested an Uzbek restaurant as it is a popular cuisine in Russia. We ordered a couple of traditional dishes, like Plov, which is a rice dish with carrots, chickpeas, raisins and roasted lamb, and a traditional Uzbek dumpling called Manti. Lamb and mutton are two of the preferred proteins in Uzbek food, so we also had skewers of meat, that are served with a few different fruit sauces. The restaurant was a great place to stop for lunch – delicious food and a great atmosphere.

All said and done, I think we did a pretty good job trying all the traditional foods we could. There was so much more to eat, but in two days, we ate a lot and enjoyed it all.

What is your favorite Russian dish?

14 thoughts on “Not Your Typical St. Petersburg Tour: Russian Food Finds

  1. Paula McInerney says:

    Lucky you found such a good tour to get to try everything that you were after. Food always tastes better where it originated. I want the stroganoff and a few of the others. I love markets, because i love the different foods and also seeing the local people at work and at play

    • Laura Lynch says:

      I was a little afraid that we weren’t going to be able to try the foods in Russia as much because the mainstream tours just don’t provide that, so we were very lucky to find what we wanted!

  2. Meg Jerrard says:

    Thanks for this guide! I’ve honestly never really thought much about Russian food, though I have definitely wondered if Russian vodka really the best in the world!! Very cool, I would love to be able to get there to try it for myself.

    You had a similar experience to my parents actually re the cruise, they’ve just spent a day in Russia and they also said they were forced to stick with a guide so that they didn’t have to hook up an annoying visa. Good to know in advance!! Glad you managed to find an excellent guide 🙂

    • Laura Lynch says:

      I would have much rather been on my own without the guide if we’d been there for longer, because then you can really experience it for yourself, but it was nice having her along to show us what to order. Plus we saved the hassle with the visa. You just have to find the right tour company because so many of them are just cattle herders.

  3. Carolann & Macrae - One Modern Couple says:

    We’re always a bit hesitant with tours, we’ve been on some great ones but we’ve been on ones where we feel like we’re being herded like sheep from one tourist hot-spot to the next. This sounds like a PERFECT tour to go on and have some authentic experiences! The food looks delicious too – we’re dying to try some authentic stroganoff! We’ll be keeping this tour in mind if/when we get to St. Petersburg!

    • Laura Lynch says:

      Carolann, the best part of this was that it was a private tour and we could do anything at all that we wanted. There were no restrictions or other tourists to worry about. That’s the only (and best) way to do a tour.

  4. Lauren @ Justin Plus Lauren says:

    This is so cool that you got to have an authentic foodie experience there. I have to say that I’m not a big Borscht fan, though maybe I would like the Russian version of it like you did! I wouldn’t mind trying all of the beer and vodka, too. 😉

    • Laura Lynch says:

      Lauren, I think you might like the Russian version of Borscht. It really was entirely different than what I’d ever had at home before. It was really good!

  5. Tim Kroeger says:

    Trying local food in a new country is for me one of the best parts of travelling and always a good opportunity to get in contact with locals. The tour sounds really good and I am glad that you have enjoyed it 🙂

  6. Lindsay Nieminen says:

    the markets sound like a unique place to visit! i can’t say i have tried anything “russian” but i really enjoy reading about all of your tasty travels! (with two little boys we spend more time at McDonalds than i am ready to admit! haha)

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