Gosti//13 Malaya Morskaya Ulitsa//Tel. 312 5820//Open daily from 10 a.m. to midnight.//Lunch for two without alcohol 1,750 rubles ($56)

Published: October 12, 2011 (Issue # 1678)

Home comforts

Gosti is an establishment that does not take its name lightly. Literally translated as “Guests” and also forming part of a Russian expression meaning “to go to someone’s house,” Gosti does indeed do everything possible to make visitors feel as though they are visiting a friend’s house, rather than a commercial eatery.

The experience begins immediately for those who choose to bypass Gosti’s small but diabolically enticing first-floor confectioner’s, with its compact counters laden with cream-filled pastries and chocolate treats, in order to head upstairs to its restaurant proper. “Welcome to Gosti,” announces a beaming waitress standing at the top of the stairs, making use of the word’s convenient double meaning, since the same phrase means “Welcome to our home.”

The warm welcome continues as diners are shown to their seats, with more random greetings from equally smiley members of staff along the way. The effect of this enthusiastic reception — toasty by any standards, not least Russian — is almost overwhelming, so different is it to the indifference frequently encountered at other establishments around town.

The tactic is partially successful at making guests feel like they are visiting a friend at home — albeit, a very nice home. The spacious room feels cozy, despite its size, due to the prolific collection of decorations and knick-knacks adorning every available space. The walls are peppered with plates and photos, and the wooden chairs are covered with patchwork cushions, while the green shutters and chintzy curtains enhance the homely atmosphere. The ambience is topped off by the cornucopia of candles and ornaments strewn along the ledge of the old-fashioned stove.

In terms of its homely atmosphere, Gosti is not dissimilar to the hugely popular Teplo, located the other side of St. Isaac’s Square. But Gosti takes its warm and fuzzy theme one step further with an emoticon-peppered menu. Smilies are not the only symbol to be found in the menu: Vegan dishes are also considerately marked, though anything simply vegetarian is indistinguishable from the meat and fish dishes. Nor are the smilies the only source of amusement in the English-language menu, which introduces some little-known alternative food vocabulary such as sparrowgrass.

Both the service and the food at Gosti maintain the illusion of being at a friend’s house, to varying extents. The waitress was so friendly and chatty that she was convincing in her role of hostess, gamely refusing to write down the order (such practicalities would, no doubt, shatter the illusion), and then, inevitably, forgetting it.

The food itself also had a distinctly homemade feel to it. A mushroom burek (a Turkish/Balkan pastry) priced at 90 rubles ($2.85) was heavy and somewhat soggy, and seemed to contain far more dough than mushroom. It would also have benefited from being warmed up before being served.

The tomato soup (240 rubles, $7.60) was far more successful: It was made with fresh tomatoes and was not overly seasoned, it was served at the perfect temperature, and topped with generous chunks of fresh bread and a drizzling of olive oil.

The goat’s cheese and beetroot salad (340 rubles, $10.75) contained at least half a kilo of pickled beets, which was a little startling. Daunting as the quantity was, thanks to the excellent contrast with the soft goat’s cheese, crunchy walnuts and piquant arugula, enough of the beets were polished off to make even the strictest dietician proud.

The main courses were less gratifying. Pasta with chicken meatballs and Parmesan (290 rubles, $9.20) was as heavy as it sounds, and would have benefited greatly from something green and healthy, as well as from a bit of salt (it was so bland that its recipient — the mother of a young child — compared it to a toddler meal).

The vegetable and ricotta lasagne (360 rubles, $11.40) was an even stranger affair, with surprisingly solid chips of ricotta cheese topping a mixture of sour eggplants and roast bell peppers. Unlike in a regular lasagne, the ingredients were not bound together, but were all entirely separate. And if the pasta with meatballs lacked salt, the same could certainly not be said of the lasagne, whose disparate elements were floating in a salty broth at the bottom of the bowl.

It is a tribute to Gosti’s atmosphere and attention to detail that despite these shortcomings, it is hard to be put off completely by its hit-and-miss-cuisine. After all, it would be difficult to be annoyed with a real friend who had gone to so much effort.

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