THE DISH: Bengel Zaek and Mertens
Bengel Zaek and Mertens//21 Nevsky Prospekt//Tel. 244 1239//Open 9 a.m. to 11 p.m.//Menu mainly in Russian, some dishes in English//Dessert-centric lunch for two 1,240 rubles ($41)
Published: January 30, 2013 (Issue # 1744)
Room for dessert
If you walk into Bengel Zaek in the historic Dom Mertensa building on Nevsky Prospekt in search of real food, don’t be surprised if you decide that an éclair, a couple of macaroons and an espresso counts as lunch. To bypass the sumptuous display of pastries that rivals that of any Parisian bakery to have lunch at Mertens, the adjacent restaurant, seems a needless act of will.
While the self-service Bengel Zaek does have a few savory offerings — homemade, pre-wrapped sandwiches, which on our visit were available with salmon (180 rubles, $6) and chicken (160 rubles, $5.30), as well as a few pan-Asian dishes, like the pineapple rice (280 rubles, $9.30), and a rib-eye priced at 990 rubles ($33) — that’s really not the point.
Try the financier (70 rubles, $2.30) and you’ll get the point. One bite of the chewy vanilla cake topped with slices of pear is enough to guarantee the quality of these delectable desserts.
For something a bit more fantastique, the pirozhnoe letnee (summer pie) priced at 120 rubles ($4), a beautiful pink dome topped with a white chocolate tablet with a bit of edible gold leaf, is hard to resist. A thin base of chocolate is topped with layers of white cake, raspberry filling and white chocolate mousse and coated with a magenta layer of tart raspberry glaze, offering the perfect combination of texture and flavors, with bitter notes to cut the sweetness.
Breakfast pastries are also ripe for the picking, regardless of the time of day. The chocolate croissant (70 rubles, $3.20), while lacking the over-the-top buttery extravagance you find in the best genuine versions, had a delectable flavor, with the right tang to the croissant dough.
The lemon and raspberry tart, or smetanik (80 rubles, $2.70) delighted with its bright lemon flavor that set off the thin layer of raspberry filling, all on the bakery’s tender tart pastry.
Alas, it was impossible to sample everything — at least in one go — but other temptations included the brownie and the Napoleon, whose praises were being sung by the guests at the next table.
The tea list includes a pleasant and light milk oolong (180 rubles, $6), but the coffees are far more interesting. The café offers a number of interesting espresso options, including coffee with fig, berry coffee and a sitsiliyano (120 rubles, $4), a long espresso with sugar and a disconcertingly overpowering punch of fresh lemon juice.
Tiny circular tables pushed close together and the slight jumble of décor that includes gingerbread houses and shelves of decorative boxes create the right balance of charm and chic.
If you are committed to a proper lunch, Merten’s, the two-story restaurant housed through the archway from Bengel Zaek, is not a letdown. The set-up does prove a little confusing —you can’t combine your tabs, and while Merten’s accepts credit cards, Bengel Zaek does not. (Luckily, with its location smack dab in the center of the city, a quick dash to the ATM isn’t out of the question.)
At Merten’s you’ll find such elegant offerings as warm salad with chicken liver (320 rubles, $10.65). The liver was extremely tender and not overcooked, still pink on the inside, and tossed in the slightly sweet, Asian-inspired sauce that dressed the salad, a mix of frisé, cherry tomatoes, quail eggs and shredded Parmesan cheese.
Creamy soups always have the potential to wind up bland and heavy. The cream of mushroom soup (260 rubles, $8.65) was, however, surprisingly foamy and had a good, strong fungi flavor.
Mertens has certainly spared no expense to create a stylish interior, but it’s done with a careful eye toward a clean, shiny hipness. The wood paneling is sponge painted in blue and red. Orange pillows soften the already plush purple booths. The exposed brick wall is covered in empty picture frames that hang between a few gilded wall sculptures. The focal point is the massive chandelier made of green glass bottles, shiny silver buckets and glass jars, which can be admired at leisure as guests sit at the restaurant’s balcony seating area.
No one will hold it against you, of course, if in lieu of taking in these details you rush through your meal and head down to Bengel Zaek for the best part — dessert.