THE DISH: Island Intermezzo

THE DISH: Island Intermezzo

Tony’s Kitchen //88 Maly Prospekt V.O.//Tel. 988 8020 //Open 12:00 – midnight//Dinner for two with alcohol: 3,940 rubles ($126)

Published: April 17, 2013 (Issue # 1755)

Something is stirring on the western peripheries of Vasilyevsky Island, and it’s not the district’s notorious Baltic winds. Don’t shout it from the rooftops just yet, but the badlands out beyond the Smolenskoye cemetery are being quietly colonized by a new generation of cafes and restaurants that are supplanting the tawdry relics of the 2000s, in a part of the city that has always seemed about 10 years behind the times.

Newcomers such as Ginza Project’s restaurant Churchkhela have now been joined by the Italian co-owned Tony’s Kitchen, which opened earlier this year at the far end of Maly Prospekt, where the Stalinist buildings of the Gavan district merge with the 1980s monoliths of Primorskaya.

Plenty has been said about the city’s obsession with the one-size-fits-all menu, so the news that a restaurant purporting to focus on Italian food also dishes out Uzbek, Japanese and Russian cuisine is by now about as surprising as the Pope’s Catholicism or the activities of bears in forests.

What is surprising, however, is that despite its remote location and unoriginal menu, Tony’s Kitchen turns out to be something of a pleasant surprise, even if it is an exception that proves the rule.

The name conjures up visions of a friendly local joint in New York or Chicago’s Italian neighborhoods, but instead you get a large modern place occupying the central portion of a mall — though the space inside has been thoughtfully broken up into cosy, angled dining areas — all muted browns, contemporary wooden furnishings and orange lampshades.

A warning: Tony’s can only be entered from the street a little way past the entrance to the mall. As we found to our cost, there is no access from inside the mall itself. Having walked all the way from the city center, we had worked up a hefty appetite, and this fool’s errand was an unwanted distraction.

However, once seated with a bottle of wine — in this case a solid if unspectacular dry red Valpolicella Villa Pampini (1,250 rubles, $41) from the vineyards of Verona — our mood quickly improved. The complimentary balls of mozzarella enclosed in basil leaves and speared on a cocktail stick with a cherry tomato and a trail of balsamic vinegar were an unexpected treat that augured well, and things were about to get even better.

There may not be a better winter warmer in the city than the pumpkin soup with ricotta and croutons (250 rubles, $8) that Tony’s serves up. The melting chunks of crumbly ricotta and the thick viscosity of the puréed pumpkin were just made for a chilly evening on the colder side of town. The absence of croutons was more than compensated for by a spangling of toasted pumpkin seeds.

Up next, inevitably, was pizza — a well-baked thin crust specimen layered with Parma ham beneath a generous scattering of ruccola (490 rubles, $15.80). It seems somewhat churlish to point out that the ruccola was clearly not as fresh as it could have been — after all, this is Russia in April, after all, and besides, the ruccola lacked neither flavor nor crispness.

An order of baked maki rolls with eel and salmon (390 rubles, $12.50) revealed that even Tony’s sushi fares well in comparison with city chains which supposedly specialize in the stuff.

Meanwhile, the smiling waitress demonstrated a commendable talent for being there just at the right time, popping up unexpectedly to refill our glasses from the bottle whenever they were close to empty. In fact, it was her recommendation of the hot-smoked salmon with fried potatoes (600 rubles, $19.20) that turned out to be the night’s winner. Served with a sweet mustard sauce, the salmon was dry on the smoked exterior — as one would expect — but succulent and tender on the inside. The intoxicating, rustic aroma of smoky woodchip alone was enough to make the mouth water.

By now, we were digging through the biscuit and fresh strawberry layered in yoghurt mousse (250 rubles, $8) and exchanging sumptuous spoonfuls of strawberry flambé (380 rubles, $12.20), luscious soft tranches of the fruit served in a delicious strawberry coulis. Desserts are often a stumbling block for restaurants in the city, but Tony’s sailed through this exam too.

Due to its location in a residential area, Tony’s is not a place you are likely to find yourself by accident — a modicum of purpose is required to make it out here. What this also means, however, is that you will find few of the posers and glamourpusses that throng city-center establishments. Our fellow diners were mainly groups of young locals and families, and nobody seemed to object when one inquisitive little explorer approached our table on a diplomatic mission of his own. It all goes to show — sometimes it’s worth leaving your comfort zone.

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