Who mourns the passing of the Soviet Union? Nobody, it seems, other than Vladimir Putin, and even he has the judgment to dress his imperial pretensions in Slavic pan-nationalism instead of a Soviet sequel. And no wonder; the USSR was a dreary place, dreariest perhaps at table.
Even its offshoots abroad radiated gloom. The Soviet Club in a Soho cellar conjured by Dorothy Sayers in the Lord Peter Wimsey novels sounds authentic enough. The cooking is “beastly, the men don’t shave” and unwelcome diners got a bullet to the shoulder. The fictional lord describes a ghastly establishment where the “rather sketchily trained” waiters, the “exceedingly heated atmosphere, the babel of conversation and the curious inequalities of the cutlery” create the conditions of a canteen for the homeless. In classic Soviet style, the Gerrard Street premises sport a color scheme of orange and magenta. (Ryan & Eakins 108-09)
The authors of a surprisingly decent cookbook from 1981 based on the detective series provide tips to their readers for staging their “own Soviet Club party:”
“For authenticity’s sake try to make the setting in which you serve the food as oppressive as possible. You might, in fact, want to take your guests down to the cellar rather than into the dining room.” (Ryan & Eakins 109)
You also should serve bad Soviet Club Fish Soup or Red Army Borscht before the soggy, unseasoned Comrades’ Mutton Stew with some stale lumps of People’s Black Bread. (Ryan & Eakins 109) But no booze; only acidulous coffee and insipid tea fuel this fevered babel. Intrigue seldom tasted so bad.
All that is old is new again in central Europe, to the great misfortune of its inhabitants, especially in Ukraine. As Bad Vlad continues his machinations, east and west reprise their wary dance of espionage and intrigue. Something, however, has changed. It is the empire of the tsars, not the workers’ paradise, that the little green men seek to restore.
Bob Bob Ricard
1 Upper James Street
London W1F 9DF
+44 20 3145 1000
And so culinary art follows geopolitical life. In London, in Soho no less, lies an unlikely alliance, an Anglo-Russian restaurant called Bob Bob Ricard. It is just the place to plot betrayals, create a cabal or conjure masked men without insignia. Given the uneasy existence of such disparate cultures under the same roof, we might pretend that nobody knows the loyalty of anyone involved in the enterprise, which only adds to the fun.
Restaurants that serve this kind of cohabitant food seldom succeed on either side of the hyphen, but Bob Bob Ricard represents a notable exception. The food, in a word, is good, and you can enjoy it in a setting, eons from the sulking Soviet Club. Like mad Vlad, Bob Bob harkens to a Romanov rather than Red era. Their dresscode, they tell you, is ‘elegant.’
The rooms--there are two--resemble nothing if not a hallucination of overstated and yet somehow tasteful tsarist opulence. Expanses of brass, leathered upholstery and rich royal blue define a décor that begs for intrigue. Each table nests within a booth that rises to the shoulders of a seated diner, and each may be incompletely curtained from its neighbors or not, depending on the need either to keep tabs on them or to maintain their ignorance of incipient conspiracy.
The unsmiling staff is brisk rather than brusque, oddly personable beneath their stern facades. Much theater in evidence here, even down to detail; each table comes with an emergency button dedicated solely to the immediate arrival of Champagne. It comes at a price but this is a place for indulgence. Oysters, truffles and lobster inhabit this kitchen; expensive vodkas stand behind the bar.
You can order piles of caviar for piles of money, or play the wastrel by garnishing another selection with it, but need not emulate an oligarch at Bob Bob Ricard. There is of course a lot of pricey Champagne, but the wine list includes some better than average Alsatians, which as usual means wines considerably better than average. They pair well with just about anything on the menu.
The borscht comes deconstructed, more in the mode of DeMann than Lenin, to surprise the uninitiated. Stripes of aromatics and meat span the bottom of a dish but then, boom, your waiter flourishes a teapot and eradicates the drought of beet broth from high altitude. More theater, more good food.
The menu marks Slavic dishes like the borscht, vareniki, a stunning venison tartare and others, with little Russian flags; British standards stand alone. Traditional chicken and mushroom pie gets sauced with a sparkle of Champagne; the pork belly, ubiquitous on London menus, arrives with welcome discs of black pudding and cabbage. It may be the best belly in Britain. They do not overcook fish at Bob Bob Ricard, and the steaks are fine for those inclined.
Despite all the showy fun and trappings of luxe, it is possible to escape this den of spies without resort to money laundering. Order carefully, go with a pinot gris and it is possible to steal more than a secret at Bob Bob Ricard.