Pushkin’s offerings translate into decent Russian fareThe recent opening of what has been hailed in some quarters as Seoul’s first Russian restaurant adds a welcome diversity to Seoul’s dining scene ― but to call it the first Russian restaurant in town is wide of the mark.
In the mid-1990s, several hole-in-the-wall eateries of dubious legal status appeared in Dongdaemun Market, offering Russian snacks to the hordes of Russian and Eastern European bag traders descending on Korea.
Looking even further back, we come across one of the Hermit Kingdom’s most storied establishments. In the late 1890s, Seoul’s very first Western guest house (later hotel) was opened by a Mrs. Antoinette Sontag. This good lady was of German nationality but was married to the head of the Russian legation.
She introduced not only Western meals, such as steaks, but also coffee ― one of the earliest aficionados of this beverage was King Gojong (assassins would try to poison him with a cup) ― and Western-style makeup to Joseon.
Considering how many tons of coffee are glugged in today’s Korea, and how many tons of makeup are plastered across the faces of the female population, one can only wonder at the immense fortune Mrs. Sontag could have made if she had stuck around.
But to return to the present: Pushkin ― named after the romantic poet who was killed in a duel in Moscow in 1837 ― was opened in October by a Korean businessman who had spent five years in Russia. Set on a Sinsa-dong side street, it is a very modish two-story structure. Inside, one encounters a kitschy Slavic sword mounted on the wall, hanging drapes and dim lighting.
The dining area is upstairs. The main room is dominated by a circular glass standing cellar, where wines and vodkas are displayed, and at the back, a large bar.
Semi-private dining rooms are off to the sides. Here, white tablecloths, a brass lamp and striped wallpaper impart something of the ambience of the 19th century St. Petersburg drawing room that Pushkin wants to be ― but the dim lighting, interior-lit cellar and large bar deliver the atmosphere of the upscale southern Seoul bar that the place actually is. Music is an uneasy mix of Russian orchestral and piano arrangements, and, er, Japanese pop.
The menu, featuring a portrait of the great poet, is written in Cyrillic and maddeningly undescriptive Korean, so requires some wading through.
We start with pickled mushroom salad (10,000 won or $8.50) ― the Russians, like the Koreans, pickle food for the long winter ― and salmon roe, egg and potato salad (12,000 won). There’s a generous amount of mushrooms, but frankly, how many mushrooms in vinegar does one really want? The spud salad is a tastier option: a combination egg mayonnaise/potato salad, garnished with olives and tomatoes.
Next: Russian soup with beef and vegetables (12,000 won) turns out to be the Ukrainian classic borshch (as I said, the hangeul menu does not give many clues). This is brightly colored, appropriately served with a dollop of sour cream, but lacks the tartness of some I have eaten before. It’s not really too different from a basic veggie soup.
“Russian mandu” (12,000 won) is the famed pelmeni, or Russian ravioli. These are very delicately presented meat dumplings; the shells are exquisite, but the minced meat filling is nothing to write home about.
Mains are more promising, although you would not guess from the menu. “Russian bokkeumbap” (15,000 won) is that quintessential Russian dish, beef stroganoff, while “Russian pancakes” (18,000 won) proves to be the equally famous blini. The stroganoff is strips of fillet steak ― the czar’s chef invented this dish when gate-crashers attended a party, necessitating the steaks being sliced into smaller pieces ― served in a wine and cream sauce of excellent consistency. The sauce offers that delicious background tartness that is the hallmark of many Eastern European dairy dishes. It is a moderate serving, and comes with rice and a basic vegetable garnish.
The blini are beautifully delicate, lacy buckwheat pancakes, served golden brown with sour cream and salmon roe. A really enjoyable, light dish unlike anything else we have had in Seoul. We finished with tea and some pleasantly moist sponge cake.
There is a fair wine list and a good selection of vodkas, which, you will be pleased to hear, are not called “Russian sojus.” The latter are available for 130,000 per bottle or 7,000 won per glass. Alas, I was driving so was unable to partake. The automobile is a terrible invention.
Another treat that we did not sample was the Beluga caviar. At 130,000 won a serving, this was a little beyond our price range. (Note to editor: Grant food critic pay raise immediately.)
Considering the exoticism of the cuisine and the notoriously expensive neighborhood, Pushkin’s prices are reasonable. Service is friendly, though frequently out of earshot in the bar.
Assuming you can decipher it, the menu offers some hits and some misses, but I would feel more kindly disposed toward this place if it marketed itself as a restaurant, rather than a combination bar and restaurant.
Pushkin certainly is a welcome addition to the dining scene, but I wouldn’t bet on it to start a Russian revolution in local eating habits the way Mrs. Sontag’s famed establishment did more than 100 years ago.
No English spoken
Tel: (02) 541-0506
Address: 645-21 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam district
Directions: Across from the Samwon Garden restaurant just down the road from Dosan Intersection is an S-Oil gas station. Take the alley next to this gas station, and Pushkin is about 100 meters ahead on the left.
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m., seven days
Valet parking available
Dress: Cool casual
by Andrew Salmon