When I think about Russia, I always think snow, potatoes, and well, the mob. Men with scarred faces, the very image of toughness. The whole Eastern European thing. Which, you know, can be very intimidating, when you know nothing about the culture and want to find out more.
So imagine my surprise and delight when I was invited by Olga to sample the delights at her cafe, Izba Russian Treats, in Newtown!
The Beef Blini is very much like a savoury crepe, made from a traditional yeast leavened batter to create a soft spongy wrap that surrounds seasoned beef mince.
Made with caramelised onion, the beef mince was very lightly sweet, and together with the blini and rich sour cream, made for a very addictive dish. Light but satisfying, this is actually a great option for a quick lunch, and isn’t as stodgy as I would have assumed Russian food to be.
If you’d like something a bit richer, the Salmon and Buckwheat Pie consists of puff pastry, filled with tender buckwheat, smoked salmon, and eggs baked right into it. The smoked salmon lends quite a heavy hit of salt to the pie, which balances out the “blandness” of the buckwheat. Be sure to get a bit of everything in each bite!
And then, what we really came here for: the cakes. Olga has learnt how to bake at the knee of her grandmother – who’s recently turned 90! – and her mother, and has inherited recipes passed down from generation to generation.
Although the savoury dishes were surprisingly light, the desserts ticked ALL the boxes for luxury and richness. The signature Izba – so named for the wooden hut that it’s shaped after – is made of sponge cake, cream, kirsch-soaked cherries and rich chocolate over the top. So good, so rich. Even as large a glutton as I am, I needed to eat share this cake with friends, especially after the first heady hit, as the delicious DELICIOUS sugar, cream and cherries continue their welcomed assault on my senses.
On the “opposite” end of the spectrum was the Bird’s Milk, which is meant to be as light as bird’s milk. Having never tasted bird’s milk I can’t comment on the name, but this was a considerably lighter cake of cream, sponge and a light layer of chocolate ganache. There was something so simple and straightforward about it that created an aura of charm around it, but the Izba, with all its old world pomp and circumstance, still remained my favourite.
Olga really opened my eyes to the world of Russian hospitality. Could she have been extra nice to me because I was a guest? Maybe. But the interactions with her other customers that I eavesdropped on carried a warmth of an owner who is passionate about the product, and down in the trenches working long shifts alongside her staff.
Oh, and that stereotype about Russians not smiling? Well, Olga says that it just takes a while for them to open up, but once they do, it’s a genuine invitation to their hearts and their homes.
And their dining tables.