THE DISH: Farm-Fresh and Fashionable
CoCoCo//8 Nekrasova Ul.//Tel. 579 0016//Open 11 a.m. to midnight; Fri-Sat until the last guest//Menu in Russian and English//Dinner for two with alcohol: 3,410 rubles ($110.60)
Published: March 26, 2013 (Issue # 1752)
There are times when, as a foreigner, you realize that concepts that are familiar in your homeland have a distinctly translated touch when you find them in Russia. Such was the experience at CoCoCo, a recently-opened restaurant in the city center, owned by Leningrad singer Sergei Shnurov and his wife. With its emphasis on locally grown food — a familiar concept in the U.S. and elsewhere — here “eating local” means small portions of hearty, traditional dishes, liberal use of root vegetables and a lot of buckwheat.
Hearing us speak English, the servers were thrilled at the opportunity to show off their English-friendliness, deftly swapping the paper menus on our table with English versions before we had even sat down. The menu, printed on rough brown recycled-looking paper, contains notes about where the food is sourced from, with the claim that “gastronomy starts when the ingredient reigns over the recipe.” The dishes are centered on products from local farms that are a part of the Lavkalavka farmer’s co-op — for example, milk from one of 60 cows tended by Olga, which graze in open pasture.
We rang in the meal with thimbles full of vodka (100 rubles, $3.25) served with pickled cucumber and garlic and a tiny piece of toast, one of several ways the restaurant offers Russia’s favorite aperitif. For teetotalers, house-made sea buckthorn juice (100 rubles, $3.25) or lemonade (160 rubles, $5.20) offer non-alcoholic refreshment.
The appetizer portions are uncommonly generous — especially when compared to the rather petite main courses. An appetizer of holodets (270 rubles, $8.75), or jellied pork, was smartly presented as small cubes coated with fresh, grated horseradish. While aspic itself can only inspire so much excitement, the cubes are a perfect vehicle for the outstanding whole grain mustard garnish.
The highlight of the meal was the calf’s liver terrine (330 rubles, $10.70). Here, thick slices of terrine are served with rye bread, pickled red onions and a few tiny baked potatoes, with a wedge of pickle on the side. This is food that is “rustic” in the best sense of the word: Hearty food that may be provincial in origin, but is made elegant and memorable by the use of high-quality ingredients.
CoCoCo serves only wild fish. Reading the menu a little more carefully might have swayed us to order the pike, which is delivered fresh daily, but the more interesting accompaniments saw us order the cod from the Barents Sea, which we were assured was flash-frozen on board the fishing vessel (490 rubles, $15.90). The fish was served on a bed of beet and salted lemon-infused mashed potatoes, and sprinkled with dried herbs. The dish was more artistic than delicious, inspiring more conversation about what this garnish actually was than enthusiastic feasting.
Rabbit, a rare find on a Russian menu, is served at CoCoCo in a sour cream sauce with buckwheat porridge and glazed vegetables (590 rubles, $19.00). While the hindquarter verged on miniscule, the meat was juicy and perfectly cooked. A touch of smetana added to the buckwheat porridge made for a savory and satisfying main course.
We also tested the chef’s inventiveness with buckwheat with a serving of kasha and spiced pumpkin (180 rubles, $5.80). The smokiness of the kasha paired well with the roasted pumpkin, though probably wouldn’t convert anyone who isn’t already a devotee of Russia’s most beloved grain. The portion size-to-cost ratio was also laughable: Two cubes of pumpkin amounted to 60 rubles.
We skipped over the buckwheat selections when it came to dessert (in this case, hidden in puff pastry). Instead we opted for a baked persimmon (250 rubles, $8.00), which was served on a shortbread pastry crust spread with sweet, whipped cream cheese. The fruit was dressed up with a seductively crunchy, caramelized layer of sugar and surrounded by a few dots of hazelnut butter and nut halves, hitting all the right notes. Sweet enough to honor the key ingredient, not mask it, the dish exemplified the restaurant’s abiding philosophy.
It remains to be seen if local residents will soon demand all-organic produce and the first and last names of the chicken that was ground into their cutlets. Almost as unusual as the focus on local food, though, is that the wait staff at CoCoCo are eager to answer questions and actually seem to want you to like it. As much as you can mock the cozy conventions of urban “local food,” the fact is that you will probably want to like it, too.