Grand Hotel Europe
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Vodka Czar

David Belcher - March 2009

In a rambling five-star Russian hotel, trolleys overflowing with caviar and 40 brands of vodka make music of a different sort.

If vodka is to Russia what wine is to France, then a vodka sommelier would only make sense here. After all, the czars and wealthy Russians of a century ago who created modern-day vodka were obsessed with French culture. At the fashionable Grand Hotel Europe on St. Petersburg's Nevsky Prospekt, fabled for its shopping and expensive apartments as well as being the main thoroughfare of the city, Caviar Bar & Restaurant graces the pinnacle of a dramatic red-carpeted staircase. There, vodka sommelier Alekhan Malkhozov and restaurant manager and vodka expert Dmitry Zakharchenko are honing the idea of different vodkas for different courses. In a country where vodka is the stereotypical drink of choice—and often related more to a fine buzz than to fine dining—the restaurant presents crisp cold vodka paired with such Russian staples as caviar, blini, smoked and marinated salmon, herrings, pickles, and salo—aromatic salted lard wrapped around pickled cucumber and served on black bread smothered with garlic puree.

Zakharchenko and Malkhozov don't display their myriad vodkas in a Kremlin-size bar. Instead, they've created a warm and intimate dining experience amid red velvet chairs and booths, cream-colored marble walls with Fabergé eggs faintly illuminated, and soft live music. Gloved waiters in red silk uniforms present vodka in crystal shot glasses etched with the hotel's insignia. The glasses are lined up alongside plates with pitch-black and neon-orange caviar, blini, traditional smetana (soured heavy cream), and chopped eggs. At this restaurant, vodka isn't just for the swilling masses. It's been reclaimed by the big-city upper class who perfected the spirit from distilled sugar beets and potatoes—staples of the peasant diet in those other 10 time zones.

Caviar Bar & Restaurant, which also has a full alcohol and wine list for a more European approach to dining, features more than 40 brands of vodka, ranging from well-liked Russian labels such as Stolichnaya to premium labels such as Russian Standard Platinum (filtered through silver) and 7 Samuraev (made with watermelon pulp) to vodkas from France (Grey Goose), England (02), Poland (Belvedere), and Sweden (Absolut). Vodka is also used in cocktails (the cocktail menu is shared with the less formal Lobby Bar downstairs), such as a Russian Mojito (yes, vodka instead of rum) and more backyard creations such as a Black Russian (although actually created in Belgium) and the French 76 (vodka, lemon juice, grenadine, and Russian Mousseux sparkling wine).

Zakharchenko, who is also manager and sommelier at the hotel's main restaurant, L'Europe, admits that a vodka sommelier's job is slightly different from that of a wine sommelier--sniffing into shot glasses rather than wine glasses, no holding it to the light--and he explains that it's an idea thought up by the hotel's general manager, Thomas Noll, when Orient-Express Hotels took over management of the 134 year old, 301 room hotel in 2005.

Caviar and vodka are perhaps the food and drink most associated with Russia, but they're usually perceived as opposites on the dining spectrum: a delicacy priced by a tiny unit of measurement—almost like a gemstone—and an alcohol created as early as the 15th century by snowed-in depressed peasants. Vodka—the word is a diminutive of the Slavic word for water—is typically served as an apéritif or is raised in a toast. In 1894 the Russian government established a law that vodka must be 40 percent alcohol, and mass production before and after the revolution made it accessible to all Russians. And before caviar became such a delicacy, when sturgeon was as abundant as trout, caviar—like vodka—was the food of the proletariat.

And while the French-obsessed czar-loving Russians of a century ago snapped up French wine and French Impressionist paintings, vodka has always been the drink of the motherland, according to Zakharchenko. It's a natural reconnecting of drink to dinner, particularly with the delicacy that put Russia on the culinary map.

To play up the vodka romanticism and play down the less-than-romantic hangover, Zakharchenko and Malkhozov research recipes for vodkas and their natural properties, some of which prevent the absorption of toxins in the bloodstream. Malkhozov chooses vodkas for each course, some flavored with pepper or fruit, such as Finlandia Cranberry, or Absolut Kurant for more simple foods such as traditional blini. The flavors in the vodka accent the blander foods, he explains. Heavier staples of the Russian diet, such as the salty fish, need a smoother unflavored vodka.

Each brand of vodka is carefully paired with traditional Russian food. Luxe caviar is an obvious choice. "In Russia we have severe weather," says Zakharchenko, "so we can't produce delicate things except for caviar." For traditional favorites like smoked and marinated salmon—a Sunday brunch carving station offers several selections, including a smoked version seasoned with anise, lemon and orange zests, thyme, rosemary, bay leaf, black pepper, sea salt, and olive oil, and a Nordic style with Dijon mustard, vodka, blond and brown mustard seeds, brown sugar, and dried cranberries and bilberries—Zakharchenko recommends vodkas such as Kauffmann Luxe (priced highest at U.S.$46 for 5 cl), or Beluga Gold Line (U.S.$28), or a more moderately priced Imperia (U.S.$19). Russian Standard (U.S.$7) is suggested for zastolyie (marinated cèpes).

The restaurant's finest caviars are paired with classic vodkas, such as Tsarskaya Gold (U.S.$10) with its infusion of honey and lime blossom, and Tsarskaya Silver (U.S.$6), made with honey and produced for the 300th anniversary of St. Petersburg in 2003. After all, when serving five or six types of vodka at each sitting, a sommelier doesn't want to cause a Rasputin-like reaction among diners. And Zakharchenko has found that tastes and tolerances differ for the largely American and European clientele who fre­quent the restaurant; drinking vodka with dinner is more of a local custom. Tourists often ask for staples that scream out "Russia": beef stroganoff, borscht, caviar. Pairing the vodkas to the meal—Imperia with the stroganoff, Russian Standard Platinum (U.S.$10), for example—offers a more homegrown connection. "Foreigners take vodka to cut the grease," says Zakharchenko. "Russians are eating to cut the vodka."