Review: Viet Cafe, Afimall, Moscow Russia

I’m not going to lie, I had been having the most intense cravings for Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese food throughout our entire trip through Europe. Having Spanish tapas and duck cassoulet is all well and good, but sometimes you just crave what you always eat at home.

We’re lucky enough in Australia that we have access to top-range food from all different parts of Asia. With the exception of one decent meal at Udon Kobo Ishin in Berlin, we’d found it difficult to locate genuine Asian food like we would eat at home.

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By the time we got to Moscow, my cravings had become too intense and I needed a hit of ramen, dumplings or pho! Luckily we were staying at the Novotel Moscow City located right next to a large shopping mall with a number of restaurants…Viet Cafe was one of them. We inspected the menu before entering and decided that it looked genuine enough – the restaurant owners hadn’t mixed in food from other regions (sushi, donburi, dumplings, bibimbap…) into the all-Vietnamese menu, which was a good sign!

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Dau Phu Sot (Tofu with tomato sauce and coriander, served with steamed rice), 320 Rubles

I eat a lot of tofu at home – fried, silken, puffs, bean curd, any which way, and hadn’t been able to find it in supermarkets across Europe throughout our stay. No doubt there are specialist supermarkets that carry it, but I hadn’t been lucky enough to come across one. I had to order the Dau Phu Sot to get my fill of tofu, though I was a little bit doubtful of the “cooked in tomato sauce” addendum…that’s not how I normally cook tofu! Still it was surprisingly tasty, especially with the addition of fresh coriander which I’d also been missing. It’s not a herb that you can readily find across Europe!

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Banh Bao (pork, prawns, black mushrooms, glass noodles), 90 Rubles

Also craving soft steamed buns, we ordered the Banh Bao with a pork and prawn filling. While I thought the filling lacked a certain something (Texture using more wood ear mushrooms? Flavour with more spiced pork?), the soft squishy steamed bun was everything that I’d been hoping for and more.

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Mirinda and Vietnamese lemonade (part of 650 Rubles Vietnamese Dinner)

The drinks we ordered didn’t get delivered to the table until halfway through the meal which I found interesting – surely getting a bottle of Mirinda and making a Vietnamese lemonade shouldn’t take that long? I think it highlights the slightly erratic service that we experienced all night, with the waitresses taking just a little bit too long to acknowledge you as you walked in, to seat you, to bring you a menu, to take your order…everything was just slightly off. It certainly doesn’t match the brisk efficiency you’ll find in Vietnamese restaurants in Australia, but I wonder whether it’s just the Russian way.

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Beef Pho (part of 650 Rubles Vietnamese Dinner)

We ordered their special ‘Vietnamese Dinner’ set which was comprised of a bowl of Pho Bo and some Nem Ga (next photo). I was expecting the Aussie-standard bowl of pho, and was very surprised when this tiny child-sized bowl was delivered to our table. I’d have to eat two of these bowls to consider it a full meal! Still, I liked the healthy serving of fresh herbs on the bowl, and the noodles were cooked well. Unfortunately the beef wasn’t sliced as thinly as it really should be, and the broth was tasty but lacked a depth of flavour. It’s not an award-winning bowl of pho, but I expect that it’s about as good as it gets in Russia!

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Nem Ga (part of 650 Rubles Vietnamese Dinner)

Our last dish was the Nem Ga which came with the Vietnamese Dinner. These were surprisingly the highlight of the whole meal, with a crisp crunchy skin, and extremely flavourful spiced chicken and vegetable filling. Served with a typical Nuoc Cham dipping sauce (heavenly, I put some on the rice because I’d missed it so much!), these ‘spring rolls’ were as good as any I’d had in Australia – and even as good as those I’d had in Vietnam two years ago!

The Vietnamese fare at Viet Cafe is about as good as it gets in Russia – if you’ve been on the road for a few months as we had, it’s a great place to stop in for a feed to satiate your cravings. The prices are reasonable by Australian standards, if a bit high by Russian standards especially considering the smaller serving size of all dishes. Worth a visit if you’re craving Vietnamese food!

Viet Cafe is located in Afimall at 2 Presnenskaya emb. in Moscow.

Chanoy Honeymoon: St Petersburg, December 2015

Note – photo gallery at the bottom of this post.

In case you weren’t aware, it is not easy to visit Russia. Don’t get me wrong, the actual act of transportation couldn’t have been easier – we took the high-speed Sapsan train from Helsinki to St Petersburg and it ran as smoothly as anything. The problem is in Russian bureaucracy – the visa application process for Russia was the most complicated I’d ever experienced.

First you need a letter of invitation from someone in Russia which is easy if you’re joining an organised tour, but more difficult if you’re travelling by yourself. We ended up using Real Russia who can provide visa support documents like invitation letters. Secondly when filling out the visa application form, it’s a bit more complicated than simply putting in your contact information and dates of your proposed visit. You also have to provide information about your last three employers and your managers there (sucks to be you if you’re self-employed!), as well as listing all the countries you’ve visited in the past ten years, plus the dates that you were in those countries. I travel overseas at least once a year, most years to more than one country at a time, so that last bit was a bit difficult!

Once your visa is actually approved though, it doesn’t mean you get a smile from the passport control officials as you pass the border. We had a passport control officer standing over us on the train from Helsinki for half an hour as she ran our passports and visas through the system, frowning forbiddingly the whole time. I’m pretty sure I could feel the sweat dripping down my face.

Even when you get into the country, it’s not the end of Russian bureaucracy! It’s expected that all foreign visitors will register themselves with the local police whenever they reach a new destination within Russia, often through a language barrier. We made the decision to not even make the attempt to try to navigate our way to the police station and instead opted to stay at hotels rather than private rentals, as hotel staff will register with the authorities on your behalf. One less thing to worry about!

Don’t let my account of Russian bureaucracy scare you though. Once you manage to overcome these hurdles, St Petersburg is a wonderful city to visit, rife with Imperial history, grand buildings, and a rich cultural heritage. Anastasia, our guide on our free walking tour of St Petersburg described the city as the cultural epicenter of Russia, and it truly is. The splendour and the rich ownings of the Hermitage Museum/Winter Palace are beyond compare, and that’s just the start of it!

We took advantage of local cultural offerings by attending two separate performances at the world-famous Mariinsky Theatre. The first, Macbeth the opera, and the second, Don Quixote the ballet. Both were absolutely magical performances, and surprisingly well priced – we paid about $70 for two very good seats to the opera, and only about $14 for two nosebleed seats for the ballet. An absolute bargain. I would recommend watching the ballet rather than the opera at the Mariinsky though – the body language of ballet is universal, but you need some understanding of the local language to understand opera. The Russian surtitles didn’t do much to help us understand an Italian opera!

I’d also recommend spending your first day in the city with the St Petersburg Free Walking Tour. It’s a fantastic, compact tour that takes you to most key points within the city, gives you some interesting background, and helps you shape your time in the city. Our guide Anastasia was particularly excellent – she knew her Russian history back to front, was able to give us some valuable insights into daily Russian life, and suggested a few places to eat as well! Even though it started snowing halfway through the tour, she helped to keep us warm by doing a coffee stop along the way.

We joined the same company later in our visit for a paid tour (700 Rubles per person, or $14 AUD) of the St Petersburg metro system. Our guide Vlad was a particular expert on the Soviet era, and was able to guide us around some particular metro stops noteworthy for their Soviet artwork and architecture, explaining each mosaic and sculpture along the way. He was also very open about the current nature of Russian society, particularly around how the current generation view the Soviet years and Stalin’s legacy. This is a particularly interesting tour, not only for the architecture of the metro, but the Soviet history you learn along the way!

Needless to say we visited all the key monuments – St Isaac’s Church, Kazansky Cathedral, the Church of the Spilled Blood, Peter and Paul Fortress, etc. We spent a full day in the Hermitage Museum and it didn’t feel like enough time…like the Louvre, I feel as though it’s one of those museums where you can spend a whole week there and still not see everything properly. After all, we didn’t even get time to visit the museum of Impressionist art right next door to the Hermitage (accessible on the same ticket!).

We had meals at places like Stolle, Marketplace and Frikadelki, and Teremok. We also had a lot of snacks along the way – Russian pastries in particular are particularly tasty and remind me of Asian bread in its sweetness. Most of the time we cooked dinner at home though (thanks to a supermarket just down the street), and that’s due largely to the weather! With sunrise at 9am, sunset at 3pm, and cold wet snow most of the time that we were in St Petersburg, we just wanted to get back to our apartment by 4pm so that we could shed our wet layers and get warm and cosy!

I’d love to visit St Petersburg again in the summer, where we get more hours in the day to enjoy exploring outer reaches of the city, and visiting places like the Grand Palace out of town at Peterhof, or the Alexander Nevsky Monastery where you can see the tombs of such greats as Dostoevsky and Tchaikovsky. Needless to say, we’d also keep paying $14 for two tickets to wonderful ballet performances at the Mariinsky!

Review: Teremok, Russia

I’m not going to lie – we’ve eaten fast food a few times on our trip. I don’t go out of my way to look for McDonalds, but when you’ve been travelling in the car for the whole day and it’s getting late, roadside McDonald’s is just about all you have energy for! (Additional point – K and I have what we call the McDonald’s index, where the cost of a Big Mac in various countries is a good indicator of overall cost of dining out in that country. It really works!)

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In Russia though, there’s no need to resort to greasy Mcdonald’s or Burger King when you feel like a quick and easy meal – Teremok is the place to go! It’s a Russian fast food chain that specialises in Russian blinis, which you can think of as crepes or pancakes. From what I understand, they have a presence all over the country – we went to branches in both St Petersburg and Moscow.

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Ordering at the counter can be difficult, as all the menus above the counters are in Cyrillic. You can always point to the pictures and hazard a guess at what each blini has inside, but we just asked the server behind the counter for an “angliyskoye menyu”. They keep a laminated translated menu behind the counter, which makes it much easier to decide what you want to order! On our first visit, we went for one savoury blini, and two dessert blinis – it was the late afternoon, so I needed a sweet pick-me-up hit.

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Ilka Muramets (pork, mushrooms, cheese and greens), 273 Rubles

We ordered the savoury Ilka Muramets blini, with a thick piece of grilled pork inside, as well as a wafer thin layer of wilted greens and melted cheese. Unfortunately, I didn’t taste the mushrooms that the menu claimed were in this blini, which is a shame because I think it would have added some extra flavour. Still, the pork by itself was still quite tasty with a nice savoury flavour.

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Creamy caramel and apple, 139 Rubles

K was keen for the Creamy Caramel and Apple Blini, claiming it as a combination that couldn’t go wrong. With hot gooey caramel sauce and thick cuts of stewed apple, this was a real sugar hit! I thought it lacked a certain something though – a little bit of extra cinnamon or more spices could have really picked this blini up and made it much more mind-blowing.

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iBlin with condensed milk, 101 Rubles

I chose the iBlin with Condensed Milk – I kid you not, this item is actually called the iBlin on the menu! The condensed milk was a bit too thick for the blini to handle and slowly leaked out onto the plate. If you grew up like me in an Asian household and are used to spreading condensed milk on toast as a sweet treat, you will absolutely love this blini as it takes the deliciousness of condensed milk to a whole new level. If however, you weren’t lucky enough to become accustomed to eating spoonfuls of condensed milk as a child, you’ll probably find this blini too much to handle – sorry!

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Our next visit to Teremok was in a shopping mall in Moscow close to our hotel. Again, we asked for the English menu and were pleasantly surprised when the server was able to take our order in English which made things much easier! This time we opted for two savoury blinis and a salad to share as we had our eye on a waffle place in the shopping mall for dessert.

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Chicken Bogatyr (chicken, mushrooms, cheese), 228 Rubles

I chose the Chicken Bogatyr which was a much better choice than our earlier savoury blini. This one had a much more generous number of mushrooms to go with the tender chicken and super melted stringy cheese. You really can’t go wrong with a chicken, mushroom and cheese combination!

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Royale (a chop, pickles, sauerkraut, and sauce), 209 Rubles

K chose the Royale blini, which turned out to be a hamburger in a blini! The beef patty, melted American-style cheese, sauce, and pickles made it taste exactly like a McDonald’s Royale with Cheese. Not bad if you’re craving a cheeseburger, and having it in a blini means that it’s possibly (?) slightly healthier than having the burger bun?

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Meatless Olivier salad, 133 Rubles

On a healthier note, we ordered a Meatless Olivier Salad to share, made up of small cubes of carrot, cucumber, potato, and canned peas. Served with a generous dollop of mayonnaise and fried onions on top, you mix all the ingredients together to make an Olivier Salad, also known as a Russian Salad. This was actually by far the best Russian Salad we had in the whole time we were in Russia – a big call, but true! I think the fact that we mixed the salad ourselves made all the difference as the ingredients were much more fresher and hadn’t gotten soggy from being pre-mixed.

Teremok is a great fast food chain where you can get some pretty delicious Russian blinis at a reasonable price. It’s not quite as cheap as cafeteria food, but it’s just as tourist-friendly with its English menus. Give it a try if you’re ever in Russia!

Teremok branches can be found all over Russia. For a list of their locations, please visit their website.