THE DISH: Falafelnaya No. 1

THE DISH: Falafelnaya No. 1

Falafelnaya No. 1//12 Ulitsa Zhukovskogo//Open noon to midnight//Menu in Russian only (an English menu is apparently planned)//Dinner for two with alcohol 1,336 rubles ($44)//Tel. 8 (953) 356 9902

Published: December 12, 2012 (Issue # 1739)

A fad for falafel

Sightings of falafel, the Middle-Eastern chickpea dish beloved by vegetarians and ethno-food explorers around the world, are being reported in St. Petersburg with increasing frequency.

Cooption of the global craze for the food is, however, still far on the horizon, as the city’s ubiquitous shawarma joints are yet to add anything more palatable to their menu, unlike their equivalents in the world’s more cosmopolitan urban centers.

A new vegetarian establishment with the simple title Falafelnaya No. 1, a clever play on the Soviet tradition of naming mono-dish establishments, such as Pyshechnaya (Donut Place), seems to have found the winning formula, and it may not be long before other places start filling the niche identified by St. Petersburg’s first falafel eatery.

For now, the short walk from Mayakovskaya metro station to Ulitsa Zhukovskogo is worth every step.

In a culinary milieu oversaturated with restaurants aspiring to the ostentatious, and forgetting all about that key ingredient — soul — on the way, Falafelnaya No. 1 is a healthy reminder that sometimes a combination of fresh ingredients prepared simply is all that a dish or an interior really needs.

From the minimalist Finnish-style interior to the no frills vegetarian menu, the theme here is simplicity, and it is executed to perfection.

Opened last month, and still fresh with the smell of sawdust, the small space holds just eight tables, and though most were filled on a Friday evening, the atmosphere was noticeably intimate and relaxing.

The cozy space is decorated in a clean blue and white paint scheme, warmed by the wooden tables and distant bar counter, where customers in a rush to get their daily dose of falafel can do so during the day. By night, it is a pleasant oasis of warmth. Lit candles, ambient lamps and expansive windows with views of the snowy street outside provided a perfect backdrop for conversation, and the framed prints of root vegetables foreshadowed the fresh goodness that was to come.

The kitchen, headed by a chef from St. Petersburg’s celebrated Probka group, offers fare that is as refreshing as the concept and setting: Vegetarian dishes including other Middle-Eastern classics such as hummus and couscous, salads, soups and pasta dishes.

Service was excellent for a restaurant that is fine dining in all but name — cutlery is provided in a simple basket with paper serviettes, and dishes do not exceed the 300-ruble ($10) mark, yet the Chilean red (220 rubles, or $7.30, per glass) was brought out for tasting, and dishes were recommended, presented and served to the highest of standards.

The waitress’ recommendation of tomato soup (180 rubles, $6) is an essential experience here: A piping hot, fresh tantalizing blend of tomatoes perfectly complemented with hints of coriander and a drizzle of olive oil and fresh basil — no tin-can imposter, to say the least.

Roasted eggplant with mozzarella (220 rubles, $7.30) consisted of a stack of the juicy vegetable cooked to smoky tenderness interspersed with the soft texture and taste of the cheese, in a delicious tomato sauce begging to be scraped off the plate — a task that will be taken care of by the fresh breads that are to be baked on site in the soon-to-be-opened bakery.

The scrumptious yet deceivingly simple couscous salad (220 rubles, $7.30) was the surprise crown of the meal. Though less a salad than a side dish, the light North African grain was given bursts of sweet freshness by additions of shredded mint and basil, tomatoes and raisins.

The greatly anticipated falafel platter (230 rubles, $7.60) consisted of authentic deep fried patties drizzled in tahini sauce. The falafel was nutty and heartily crunchy, though a little dry, and served on a bed of homemade hummus accompanied by fries and pickled vegetables.

The tiramisu (260 rubles, $8.60) was less remarkable in light of the meal proper, and perhaps the enormity of the portion explains why it was bizarrely the most expensive dish of an otherwise stellar dinner.

At the end of the meal, two dedicated carnivores came to the realization that despite an enormously filling and pleasing meal, not a gram of meat had been consumed.

Perhaps the cheeky addition of “est. 2012” under the logo Falafelnaya No. 1 might not be so bold after all, as this new vegetarian establishment is certain to become a favorite for all who venture into new culinary territory.

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