Posted on Monday, 19th September 2016
When Zima ‘Russian street food and bar’ opened next to Ronnie Scotts in Soho, we were very hopeful. Russian cuisine has struggled to break onto London scene up until now. Maybe this is because it has taken Russia a couple of decades (after the fall of communism ) to start growing its own chef talent. But right now, the Moscow restaurant scene is frothing with people and places that dig into their Slavic roots, combining them with the techniques of the brave new world (just look at ‘White Rabbit’ in the top 100 restaurants this year).
The man behind the Zima menu is Alexei Zimin, a known chef on the Moscow restaurant scene. With a bushy beard, kindly intense eyes and just a smudge of a smile, he fronts the brand perfectly –a kinda 21st century style Russian bear. Zima is located in a Grade II listed building. Originally Zima was only a bar that occupied the tiny basement, but it has since expanded and taken over the ground and the first floor in the building– a sure sign the guys were doing something right.
We sat on the first floor, which was all starched white table cloths and understated colours , with the ‘Russianness’ of the place only being hinted by some (well curated) hip and happening Russian art. The ground floor ryumochnaya (vodka bar) had a livelier vibe of mainly Russian speaking youngsters. Russian rock music and vintagy enamel bowls of homely food boded well in the bar, but upstairs seemed out of place (and was frankly a tad boring as there were so few customers – we are in Soho prime estate after all).
The service was warm and friendly, with recommendations on what to choose given with a genuine twinkle.
The menu looks fun – not too long – and it promised a meal centred on home-infused vodkas – great stuff when paired with the sharp, pickled flavours of Russian zakuski (appetisers). On the humid summery day we went for cocktails made with sea-buckthorn vodka. Negronovich, for example, was really quite inspired: the orange bitter flavours of the berry and Campari playing the grown-up Italo-Russian dance damn well.
Zima platter (£12) came as many little triangulars of rye breads with different toppings such as: herring tartar; cod liver salad, a must have luxury item on Soviet celebratory tables; aubergine ‘caviar’, a sweet and sour version of Baba Ganoush which was our favourite; cured pork belly which was a bit too tough and salty for our liking and home-cured beetroot salmon which was not listed on the menu but which was a pleasant addition. All nice enough to slide after shots of vodka but merged somewhat into one oily pickle when served on identical bases. Also the bread was not crisp as was advertised.
One zakuska that stood out was the venison and beef tartar (£7.50). It wasn’t what we’d expected of the tartar. Here the meat had been mixed with a tart creamy sauce, but it was a fittingly lush combo, especially when served alongside homely fried potatoes and fat caper berries.
‘Vinegret’ salad (£6), often hailed as one of the healthiest in Russian repertoire where mayo normally claims the scene, was under seasoned and lacked the zing of lemon juice or good vinegar. At its best the salad should be a comforting marriage of earthy and sour, but here was lacking somewhat.
The mains were well-portioned and priced as small-plates (at around £7-£9 a go). Zima’s beef Stroganoff (£9.50) was made with slow cooked short rib of beef rather than the classic fillet, and was served with a creamy, mushroomy sauce. When I first tried it several months ago, it was a beautiful melt-in-your-mouth thing. On this occasion, the meat was a tad dry which was such pity as it had such promise.
Sturgeon is the fish of myths back in Russia. The huge beast produced some of the best and most endangered caviar and it used to be used in abundance in tsarist Russia. The fish is a real rarity on London menus. Should that champion for a change? Well, it’s hard to say. Our sturgeon fillet (£10) marinated in rye ale (which we would never guess if we not asked) with sweet potato mash, topped with pomegranate, was doused in another creamy sauce. The overwhelming sweetness of the dish felt just too heavy, as did the sweetness of the sweet potato mash. But the fish itself had been nicely cooked.
The tastiest of dishes actually came from the modest specials. Chicken ‘cutlet’ (£7) , a small burger, with (you’ve guessed it) mushroom sauce and parsnip mash, was like a proper kiddie comfort food, the savouriness of fried chicken playing nicely against the sweeter vegetables and a smudge of some tart berry condiment. We would come back for that alone on many rainy days as it was really good.
The sweet end to the meal was an anti-climax, sad to say. We went for blinis with jam, sour cream and condensed milk, and a Charlotte cake with ice-cream. Both tasted like they have been re-heated in a microwave, losing crispiness and the freshness of freshly made dough. The Charlottle cake, is normally a generic term for most apple sponge cakes back in Russia. Here it was a steamed pudding which lacked for texture and apple flavour.
The glass of strong black tea with fresh thyme in a proper Soviet train glass holder was a better finale – simple, fragrant and served with humour. That’s how in fact we thought we would love for Zima to grow in future: do less, cut down on the flourish. A room full of happy banter, shots of good, cold vodka with a few zakuski plates that Russians do so well, could revive the most jaded of London palates.
Note: A guest post by KK from from Russian Revels.
1) Prices are surprisingly low for the location
2) Infused vodkas
3) The venison and beef tartar was delicious
4) Simple, classic flavours of chicken cutlet with mash
1) The atmosphere on the first floor was lacking as there were so few customers
2) Sturgeon with sweet potato mash may not be to everyone’s taste
3) The sauces were all too creamy
Food rating: 3/5
Prices: About £20 a head excludes drinks and service.