Connaught Square, Delhi, April 1978 and my last night in India. Swamped with a spicy diet for the previous six weeks, we ate at the Volga. I remember having Russian salad and that is all. It was my first Russian meal. I have now had my second, in Skipton, self proclaimed Gateway to the Dales and more familiar with cosy cafe tea shops. There are eight others plus two pubs on this side of the main street alone.
The Russian Tea Room has set up in what was the long established and much missed David Goldie country clothiers.
Where there were once Barbour and Musto ,there is now Russian merchandise, hundreds of gaily decorated dolls, “From Russia With Love” t-shirts. The shoe department (Brasher, Loake etc) is now a deli counter. And there is tea, lots of it.
Upstairs, you can eat in the old wellie room and in the men’s clothing room. This is the only time I have been back since the clothes shop closed last year. It is eerie and weird. A picture of Moscow’s Red Square at night takes up one wall where the tweedy jackets, moleskins and cords hung. Across the room the windows show us the lawns of the parish church and the start of the castle’s bailey defences – older even than Moscow.
Accustomed to rooting through the Magee cords and Hodgson jumpers and racks of country check shirts for a sale bargain, I am now looking at a sedate couple, she in a fine green hat and matching outfit, he in a blue naval sweater and faux work pants. On the table is a hotpot of dumplings called pelemeny sibirskie which they taste thoughtfully and a fish and vegetable consomme called uha.
Confession: what I know about Russian food is limited to that forgotten meal in Delhi and, sort of related, many hearty meals in the Seventies at a Polish club in Leeds. Mostly, one never meets Russian food. Thai, Indian, Pakistani, Chinese, North African, American, Spanish and so on are easy to find.
On this example Russian tucker is a lot of fun. The staff – mostly Russian or from the old USSR – are tricked out in traditional clothing. They are intensely polite and courteous though at least one of them ought to drop the “are you ok?” greeting when you are clearly waiting to be seated at a table. How about: “would you like a table, kind sir?” One or two are British, including the chef on the Sunday we had lunch.
A proprietor is Russian and has schooled the “Western” staff in things Russian. I suppose if you can cook then you can follow a recipe.
Elizabeth David (for newcomers a cookery writer before the profession became a free-for all, instant celebrity chef daytime TV profession to sell knives) once wrote that a French meal cooked by Chinese chefs and served in Paris would be more enjoyable than the same meal cooked by top French chefs and served in London. Something like that. The point being that ambience counts for a lot.
Well, this Russian tea room has instant ambience. It is nicely decked out. I started with a Standard Russian Vodka – selected by the waiter who has been living in the town for several years. I’ve never seen him at the Bare Knuckle & Mastiff. Looks too sensible, been studying.
The vodka was so wonderful I had to try very hard to avoid another. I then had borscht soup with beef – the famous beetroot soup. I’ve had this before in Eastern European caffs and thought this Russian specimen lacked flavour and texture, a bit thin. Maybe that’s how it really is in Russia. Anyway, it was dull for me. My friend’s classic Russian salad – named Olivier after its creator Lucien Olivier who served a more complex recipe at Moscow’s Hermitage in the times of the Tsars – was just like I had at the Volga. It was fresh, crunchy, vibrant, singing with taste. At £3.75. it would keep you going for the afternoon. It was a vitamin and protein rich mix of potato, peas, apple, cucumber, gherkin and onion bound together with egg and mayonnaise. Toppings of Russian ham, grilled fowl or fish fillet bring protein at £1.80 a chuck.
I had then tried the pelemeny. This is the stuff I imagine you’d enjoy after a hard day bolting together Ladas. The dumplings are filled with minced pig, sheep and cow, seasoned with garlic and onion and sit in a light meaty broth in the casserole. On the side are dips of mustard and horseradish. It got a bit boring after the first half dozen. A vegetable filling is offered. Price: £6.95. To my left she had shashlik – tender and moist skewered chicken, peppers and mushroom with a side helping of nutty buckwheat. This was rather good. Rosti is an alternative to the buckwheat. Price: £7.95.
Wines – presumably all Russian, start off at £14.95 for red and white and £17.95 for rose. We drank a glass or two of 2005 Georgian red saperavi from a region called Kakheti. This was terrific with lots of deep red body: £19.95 a bottle and a modest mark up on its retail price. Pudding was billed as chocolate potato cake – a handful of tasty chocolate balls, neither sweet nor tart and OK. A baked apple was a culinary disaster. It had not been cored, was undercooked and should never have left the kitchen.
To finish, Russian Caravan tea with sliced lemon – deliciously refreshing.
Verdict: Yes, there is chicken Kiev too. Worth a return visit. Service attention slackened off after the main courses.
The Russian Tea Room Cafe & Restaurant, 4-6 High Street, Skipton, North Yorkshire BD23 1JZ. Tel: 01756 795939. Open every day for Russian and European breakfasts, snacks and lunch - last orders 4.50pm. Also offers tea tasting sessions. Disabled access: ground floor WC but stair access only to the restaurant. Parking: free street parking on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday (unless there are market stalls), pay & display nearby. Clampers at work in several areas. Good website with cultural notes: www.russiantearoom.co.uk