It’s no coincidence that Russian athletes often stop by Cafe St. Petersburg in Newton Center. When Galina Slezinger was a young girl growing up in Moscow, her father Natan was a celebrity photographer who covered Olympians through the 1960s and ’70s. The family moved to Boston in 1979 and in 1993 opened the restaurant, originally in Brookline (it changed locations in 2005). Natan Slezinger kept up with his photography subjects. “To this day, he has very close ties to some gold medal winners,” says Galina Slezinger, 46. “They frequent our restaurant and visit him and our family all the time.” He also photographed diplomats, classical musicians, and actors who now come from Russia and visit. “The famous piano player [Evgeny] Kissin is going to be here in March at Boston Symphony,” says Galina Slezinger. “Once in a while he’ll even sit down and play at our grand piano.” Ahead of the opening of the Sochi Winter Olympics, Slezinger discussed Russian cuisine for athletes and fans.
Q. Do you have a special menu planned for the Winter Olympics?
A. Our menu has been more or less the same for many, many years. It was based on food that my mother [Ludmila] and grandmother [Galina Zelenskaya] always cooked at home. We actually have a lot of Russians that complain and say, “Why don’t you ever change your menu?” We like to keep it strictly Russian for the reason that Russian food is rare here in America. We pride ourselves on making our food very fresh. That’s why for over 20 years our menu has stayed consistently the same, great tasting and making sure that it keeps the Russian standard. There are a lot of Russian restaurants, especially in New York, that like to mix Russian food with French and Spanish and Japanese, but we purposely keep our food Russian.
Q. Your family is from Moscow but you named the restaurant Cafe St. Petersburg. Why?
A. When we came up with the name, it just sounded right. We actually have a lot of art from St. Petersburg. One time, my mother went to Russia and picked out beautiful paintings of St. Petersburg. We have a mural outside of the restaurant of St. Petersburg.
Q. For Bostonians who want to eat like they’re in Sochi during the Winter Olympics, what do you recommend?
A. I definitely would recommend our signature borscht. This is the stellar of soups of Russian cuisine. It’s beets, cabbage, and potatoes in beef broth and it takes a very long time to prepare. When I do it at home, it takes a good three hours because so much work goes into it. Usually, Russians will have a couple of appetizers with vodka and we do have our cranberry-infused vodka, which we make ourselves. A lot of people come just for our vodka. Our signature dish is the blini with caviar, it’s like hot crepes and one would put a little bit of caviar, red or black, on top of that. To really feel that you’re in Russia, I would recommend chicken tabaka. That’s a whole hen that’s cooked under a press and it’s so finely cooked that we have some customers that will practically eat it up to the bones. We serve it with a special vinegar and garlic sauce. Even children love this dish and come and have it here.
Q. If you were cooking for an athlete competing in Sochi, what would you serve?
A. I would think that athletes probably need a lot of protein and carbohydrates, and one of our best dishes is called pirozhok, which is like a Russian knish with beef inside. That’s a pretty big carbohydrate appetizer. Then something like leg of lamb because it has great protein, great seasoning, and lots of vegetables it comes with. That’s what I would recommend. No vodka, although I have seen ballerinas drink a lot and perform the next day. Russians have a very strong tolerance for a lot of vodka for sure.