Escaping the Russian version of Fawlty Towers

I never thought I’d have to lie about how much I fancied a cold salted fish platter in order to escape a bad restaurant. Maybe it’s the curse of being a polite Brit and not wanting to offend anyone? Or perhaps it was the fear of finding a man called Igor on my doorstep with half a plate of chicken liver paté?

Let me explain…

I was out with family and friends and we were feeling hungry. It’s always a danger zone when you let ‘peckish’ evolve into ‘ravenous’ on the hunger scale. This is the point where you’re more likely to opt for the spontaneous ‘wild card’ option (aka the restaurant that’s right in front of you). On this occasion – it was a small dimly lit Russian restaurant. It looked very traditional and Russian food is renowned for being very hearty so we thought we’d step in and give it a try.

We should have walked straight back out again. 
As our eyes acclimatised to the poorly-lit interiors, we spotted the owner, in ripped jeans wiping a suspicious stain off the staircase down to the cellar. He strolled over to us and (rather bluntly) asked what we wanted. Nervously I replied: “Errrrrm….a table for four please?” The restaurant was empty, but instead of taking us to one of the many nearby tables, he decided to make us wait whilst he looked at his ‘list of bookings’ to see if he could fit us in. Was this Basil Fawlty’s long-lost Russian relative? I was secretly hoping he’d say: “we’re fully booked at the moment.” First impressions weren’t great but you can’t always judge a book by its cover so we decided to stay…

As I slowly began to decipher the complex menu, the owner appeared behind me and with a creepy hand on my shoulder he declared: “before you start making choices…I should tell you, many things on the menu we no have…for example Tushonka, we no have, Solyanka, we no have, Vatrushka, we no have…Okroshka…” You guessed it… “we no have.” The names of unavailable Russian dishes were somewhat hypnotic, they all seemed to blend into one and I hadn’t got a clue what any of them were.

“Ok we’ll have five minutes to look at the menu….thanks.”

Exactly five minutes later – he was back and I decided to ask him the all-important question: “why are so many dishes unavailable?” Then came the deal breaker…

“Our chef Igor contracted illness..he had to leave this morning…so, many of the dishes cannot be made. Some are half finished…so if you want the paté….that be fifty minutes….veal orvlov maybe the same, I can still finish it myself. I do my best.”

The owner responded to the collective silence with: “I leave you all to think.” What was there to think about? A portion of chicken liver paté that Chef had coughed over earlier wasn’t the most appetising dish I’d ever thought about consuming.

We needed an action plan to escape the restaurant, and fast. So, we brainstormed several options:

Option A) Criticise the poor level of hygiene and walk out.

Option B) Fake a phone call and pretend we need to leave very suddenly.

Option C) Order the food – it might not be that bad…and if it is, send it back.

Option D) Exaggerate the desire for something that’s not available on the menu.

The owner was back: “So…….”

We went for the very polite Option D.  I asked the owner for a recap of which dishes weren’t available and an awkward three minutes followed where I rather unconvincingly began to tell the owner how I’d always been a fan of a cold Russian salted fish platter and this was the only dish I fancied (which ‘unfortunately’ was off the menu). 

He actually stepped back and looked at me in disbelief. You only liket de solted feesh? Arr you shurrrr?”

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Luckily my excuse worked and we managed to escape without ordering (or offending the slightly agitated owner), promising we’d be back when the salted fish was available again. On our way out, the owner tried his best to justify the lack of dishes by saying: “sorry, usually we have many more dishes but it is bad bug going round, the chef got the bug, the chef’s assistant got de bug…even I got de bug!”  If there was an award for putting people off their food, he would win it! I felt like I was an extra in a sitcom.

The moral of this story is…when a restaurant looks ‘mysterious,’ it’s best to take the time to browse a few reviews beforehand. When I got home, I read a review that there was once someone sitting in this particular restaurant and a dog ran in and straight down into the cellar – he seemed to know his way to the kitchen.  It’s safe to say I won’t be rushing back to try ‘de solted feesh’ anytime soon…

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