What began simply and innocently with a horseradish vodka shot – doubled for good measure – quickly devolved into a graveyard of wine bottles siphoned of every last drop, caviar smeared across cheeks and a case of lash rash so intense it looked like borscht. An evening at Chef Alexei Zimin’s first UK endeavour promises to let you party like Putin for a few hours, hurling yourself ushanka-first into rampant hedonism. Modeled on the Soviet-era ryumochnaya (vodka bar), Zima Bar proves that there’s more to Russian cuisine than famine and potatoes.
If Fergus Henderson is the hero of the British culinary Renaissance, Zimin is a gastronomical god in Mother Russia. After studying at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, Zimin worked under chefs like Raymond Blanc and Gordon Ramsay before going on to establish an esculent empire back home in Moscow, from award-winning restaurants to television programs to food magazines. Tiring of the tundra, he has now rolled out his newest spot at 45 Frith Street, with a menu as burly as he is.
Though initially intended to occupy only the basement, Zima Bar has quickly overtaken the now defunct Jean Jacques (a French restaurant originally hailing from Russia) and colonised all three floors of the building. Half babushka’s living room, half third-wave coffee shop, the space plays glossy cobalt subway tiles against heavy tapestries and chinaware on the walls, creating a feel that is hip yet intimate.
With considered attention to detail, they have not overlooked the music. The playlist, though bizarre, marches along with zeal, seeing Cossack folk songs dribble off into Slavic rap with surprising grace. Unlike icy Siberia, the staff is warm and accommodating (and happy to turn a blind eye to bad behaviour).
The menu unfolds like a matryoshka in reverse, with light, dainty bites to start and more robust dishes to follow. If you happen to find yourself stumbling through their doors again the following night, fear not. Though you may suffer a throbbing hangover, you will not have to suffer palate fatigue. The menu changes daily, a testament to Zimin’s kitchen prowess and creativity.
Rather than recoiling at the toe-curling sting of vodka, Russians embrace it. While there is an army of vodka infusions available, the sea buckthorn and strawberry and basil are the most gluggable. If you want not Dutch but Russian courage, cancel your colonoscopy and order a shot of the fennel and tarragon.
In a valiant effort to stave off immediate regurgitation and soothe seething stomachs, they proffer zakuski, the Soviet answer to tapas. Zima Bar’s zakuski offering is unexpected, pairing traditional pickles with tart, briny grapes and pickled sundried tomatoes. Ushered in on a crumb of Russian brown bread and accompanied by the warning “do not exhale,” they’ll make you wonder why you ever chased with lime.
The Russian Oscietra caviar set was as “keenly priced” as promised, coming in at just £1/gram. Spooned onto crisp-edged baby potatoes or toasted brioche and blanketed with a dollop of herbaceous sour cream, it is fit for a Tsar but priced for a serf (or at least a low-ranking oligarch). The venison tartare sits snugly next to the same tiny potatoes. It nips at your sinuses with its pleasantly mustardy bite, and it becomes textural with the addition of bright caperberries.
As “zima” means “winter” in Russian, you can be certain that warm dishes are not forgotten. The sturgeon fillet is dense and meaty, though cautiously seasoned. Trace a forkful through the sweet potato mash to add a bit of vegetal earthiness and to keep things moist. It may not be hugely inventive, but it will fortify you for the long winter – or the long evening – ahead. To sustain you further, opt for the lamb tongue. Though it looks dangerously close to institutional-style food, with little color on the plate, it is subtle and rich and certainly worth an extra forkful or two.
On the whole, it’s best to forgo the sides in favor of an extra vodka infusion. As expected, mayonnaise abounds, so many of the secondary dishes will leave you feeling unnecessarily stodgy. The Russian vinaigrette salad is unremarkable but inoffensive, and can provide a tangy vibrancy to counter some of the more intense dishes. The courgette salad, however, is creamy and deeply salty while still managing to maintain a bit of the virtuousness you’d expect from a vegetable dish. Grab your comrades and settle in for the evening. Summer may be upon us, but winter is coming.