Browse the restaurants of Murmank on your favorite review site, and at the top of the list you’ll find names like Tsarskaya Okhota, Tundra, Terrasa, and White Rabbit. Little do you know that these establishments all belong to one restaurant group: the Restaurant Syndicate. For a city that barely counts 300,000 inhabitants, the Syndicate forms a real empire! Its dozen restaurants, cafés, bars, and clubs with interiors and graphic designs sometimes quite obviously sourced from the same firm – along with a chain of eateries that has perfectly assimilated the American concept of serving bastardized dishes of every popular cuisine in the world under one roof – cater to every sort at a variety of price points, from casual to finer dining. Most of the menus, whose printed versions include attractive photographs of nearly every dish (a boon for food researchers like me), are a Russian-French-Italian-American-Asian mish-mash – except for Tsarkaya Okhota, the founding establishment of the Restaurant Syndicate and still its crown jewel. We’ll visit two of Syndicate’s dining rooms today: Tsarskaya Okhota and Tundra.
Opened in 2000, Tsarskaya Okhota is a veteran of Arctic cuisine. Maybe because it was the first, it’s not in the same mold as the Restaurant Syndicate’s other brands. Tsarskaya okhota means “imperial hunt” in Russian, and the tone is set as soon as you enter the restaurant: freestanding stuffed bears, animal skins on the wall, a lot of wood – the atmosphere is old Russian restaurant meets hunting lodge. Leading the kitchen is Chef Svetlana Kozeiko, who has spent the bulk of her fifteen-year career with the Syndicate. An adept of Maxim Syrnikov (who’s been researching historical Russian recipes for two decades), Kozeiko also did internships in several famous Moscow restaurants and works in active collaboration with the LavkaLavka restaurant and cooperative, thereby enabling her to offer “a modern reading of gastronomic classics.”
There’s of course a whole section of the menu dedicated to game meat, although it can’t compete with places like Chemodan or Expeditsia in Moscow. In fact, I wonder if that tsar of theirs wasn’t hunting cows (considerably easier sport than deer or waterfowl), as there’s actually an even larger number of beef dishes on the menu. It should also be noted that most of the game dishes just mention “deer”. Is that reindeer? Roe deer? Spotted deer? Cervena venison from New Zealand? Even though we’re in one of Russia’s main reindeer regions, we don’t know…
As long as they don’t mind the decor, vegetarians are welcome too. The food isn’t limited to meat, and there are many seafood dishes (often involving smoked fish and/or products available locally), savory pies, salads, and pickled vegetables.
Let’s start with the impressive board of smoked northern fish. From left to right, it’s composed of hot-smoked trout, forshmak, hot-smoked catfish, forshmak again, salt-cured salmon, and smoked halibut. Add to this some crackers, beet chips, tomatoes, cucumbers, a tartar sauce, and a kind of thousand island sauce (both which seem to differ from the Provençale and honey-mustard sauces announced on the menu). I’ve had delicious smoked and cured fish almost everywhere I’ve been in Northern Russia (or in Moscow for that matter), and Tsarskaya Okhota is no exception: everything is very good. The restaurant claims to have its own “smokehouse” (maybe just a smoker). The slightly acidic forshmak, topped with pike roe, is almost like herring rillettes – a bit like like my recipe!
The salmon and cod, scallops, and shrimp, cooked in a thick cream sauce with aromatic spices, is a simple idea to feature the region’s seafood, although the tomato cream sauce and the charred orange slice clash a bit with the notion of local food, especially in the dead of winter. There were no scallops that day so the dish was slightly incomplete.
The Siberian pelmeni, made from three types of meat (most likely chicken, pork, and beef), are a house specialty. They arrive topped with pine nuts and dill, served with a little bit of bouillon, and, on the side, sour cream, a very tomatoey adjika sauce and a cup of lingonberry mors. The pelmeni are well made, very traditional, the meat juicy and the dough a bit on the thick side. I’m not sure the addition of adjika and mors justifies the label of house specialty, though.
What with the restaurant being named Imperial Hunt, we’re gonna taste several of the game dishes, starting with the reindeer heart with spelt, celery root, and lingonberry. The Russian menu says deer but the English translation says reindeer. Then again, the English translation mentions spelt but it looks more like faro to me! Regardless, the heart itself is very tender. Unlike some other offal, it has a pretty mild flavor. It comes on a bed of cooked spelt/faro, with lingonberries and a kind of whipped cream/purée (also with lingonberries) that’s a bit weird – is it the celery root? Overall it’s an interesting and well-prepared dish, especially notable since I’m usually not crazy about heart. And how often do you get to eat reindeer heart?!
The Karelian hot pot consists of venison stewed for half a day in an aromatic broth with aspen mushrooms, root vegetables, and juniper berries, and served with boiled potatoes and a potato shanga (“filled with baked milk,” says the English translation). This is a well-prepared stew; the meat is very tender, and I also see some diced carrots and lingonberries in the pot. The aspen mushrooms are halfway between porcini and shitake. The very soft potato shanga is mostly dough, with just a bit of potato purée on top. Probably one of the best deer dishes I’ve had during my whole trip.
Even if every plate doesn’t hit all the marks, Tsarskaya Okhota offers many original and local ideas. I’m attaching a copy of the illustrated menu below so you catch a glimpse of the many dishes I didn’t get to try. Of course this type of menu has its drawbacks: it rarely changes, which makes you wonder where the seasonal ingredients come from. Sometimes they don’t come at all, like those 86’d scallops. Other times, they are not so local, like those beautiful red tomatoes… in the dead of winter, above the Arctic Circle.
Here are a few more menu entries that I find worth mentioning: pickled pears, plums, and cherries; seafood (fish, shrimp, squid) tabaka, cooked to a slight char using a grill press; Pomor cod meal (cod fillet with potato purée, omelet, gelled cream, Borodinsky bread crumbs, spelt and rye tuiles); Murmansk coulibiac (rye dough filled with with salmon, cod, halibut, chopped eggs and aspen mushrooms); Pomor pie with halibut, cod, salmon, potatoes, eggs, and scallions.TsarskayaOkhota8
And as usual, here’s the list of all the ingredients mentioned on the menu at Tsarskaya Okhota, sorted into categories. Overall the most frequently occurring are: mushrooms and potatoes for the vegetables (often found together); smoked fish, cod, and salmon for the seafood; and smoked deer, fresh deer, and beef for the meat. I’m not including the desserts in my inventory, as the selection is fairly small, centered around berries and tvorog. The only sweet that draws my attention is the Cloudberry & Pine (cloudberry and pine nut sponge cake, crunchy meringue, and pine nuts).
|beef x6, beef short rib, beef steak x5, capercaillie, chicken x3, chicken giblets, deer x4, deer heart, game bird x2, lamb, lamb tenderloin, moose x3, moose liver, pork x2, pork chop, pork crackling, pork fat (salo), rendered pork fat, pork ribs x2, pork tenderloin, reindeer tenderloin, veal tenderloin, wild boar, smoked meat x2|
|cod x7, halibut x5, herring x4, pike roe x3, salmon x10, Atlantic salmon, salmon roe x2, scallop x2, shrimp x2, northern shrimp, tiger shrimp x3, sprat x2, squid x2, trout x2, tuna, wolffish (zubatka)|
|arugula, beet x2, cabbage x2, celery root x3, chickpea x2, cucumber, garlic x2, gherkin x4, horseradish x3, lettuce x2, onion x6, pea, red onion, potato x17, pumpkin, red pepper, root vegetables x3, scallion x2, spinach, tomato x4, baked vegetables, fresh vegetables, grilled vegetables, roasted vegetables, vegetables x2|
|mushroom x5, aspen mushroom x7|
|chili pepper x3, dill seed, herbs, aromatic herbs, juniper x2, spices|
|pearl barley, couscous, farro (or spelt) x2|
|adzhika x3, honey-mustard sauce, pepper sauce, provencale sauce|
|butter x2, green butter x2, cheese x2, soft cheese, cream x12, sour cream x4, egg x10, milk, ricotta|
|black bread, Borodinsky bread, bread rolls x2, crumpets (pyshki), kalitka, lavash, rye croutons, rye toast x2|
|pasta dough x3, rye pastry dough x2, pastry dough x6|
|apple, bilberry x2, blackberry, cherry, lingonberry x5, pear x2, plum|
Tundra (Grill & Bar) is one of the newer projects of the Restaurant Syndicate, “distinguished by its colorful interior, an open kitchen and an affordable menu” (none of which are very distinguishing if you ask me). I’m told that the decor combines “the brutal spirit of the North” (represented by moss growing on the concrete walls) and “the minimalism of fashionable lofts” (featuring a very long bar counter and “the works of a young but extremely promising photographer”). The place aims to serve “dishes that are made with a subtle understanding of what a person exactly needs in the North,” in dinnerware that “imitates the works of potters of the last century.” Or, in plain English: Chef Sergei Balakshin offers his view of modern Arctic cuisine through Murmansk seafood and game meat served in earthenware dishes.
A bit like Tsarskaya Okhota, Tundra features a lot of smoked fish, fresh seafood (salmon, cod, halibut, crab), and deer (again, species unspecified). But the Persons of the North also need a lot of beef steaks, pizzas, and booze (40% of the menu, put together), showing that in this they are not so different from their North American cousins.
Still, the Person of the North is Russian and a Russian needs a salad. The Kamchatka crab salad with fresh vegetables and yogurt dressing contains a lot of veggies (cucumber, radish, tomatoes, lettuce) and a lot of dressing, a soft-boiled egg, and very little crab, in tiny pieces – consider renaming the dish, perhaps?
King crab has an interesting history in Murmansk. The species, native to the Bering Sea, was introduced in the Barents Sea in the 1960s by Soviet marine biologist Yuri Orlov, who successfully moved a handful of female king crabs from Vladivostok to Murmansk. Several thousand more crabs followed through the 1970s, and the critters, finding in their new home comfortable living and few competitors, quickly multiplied and spread. However, commercial fishery remained controlled by tight quotas, and recreational fishing was entirely prohibited – whereas on the Norwegian side, the village of Kirkenes drew a fair bit of touristic activity by organizing winter crab safaris, wherein participants break the ice to dig out crab traps before cooking a meal of the freshly caught delicacy. But lo, a change! Thanks to a law passed in January 2020, recreational king crab fishing is now allowed in several areas on the Russian side (with a limit of one crab per person), and organized tours are expected to begin this year!
Back to our appetizers, the polar trout tartare in citrus sauce looks very pretty but tastes rather bland. In addition to the fish itself, I see cucumber, scallion greens, dill sprigs, pike roe, a fried herb (dunno which one), and dots of a displeasing, unidentifiable, sweet green cream (probably the citrus sauce). Surely, the dish could be reworked to be just as visually appealing but yummy at the same time.
The creamy Lapland fish soup with shrimp, cod, and salmon, served with croutons, doesn’t seem to match that menu description. I spot cream, potatoes, little bits of crab meat and some salmon roe at the bottom – call it a crab chowder and all is well. Regardless of the missing seafood, it’s good but not to die for.
The Murmansk cod with crab mashed potatoes and anise sauce also strays from the menu significantly – just compare it to the photo on page 6 in the PDF below! The dish is still tasty, just exceedingly simple: potato, crab, cod. I’m not sure what happened to the anise sauce, as surely it is not the puddle at the bottom of the bowl.
The deer tongue (which may or may not be reindeer) on birch sapwood is very good. I don’t know exactly how the tongue is prepared, but I can say without any facetiousness that it really melts in your mouth. It comes with a creamy mushroom mousse that’s light and pretty tasty, and some bulgur cooked with onions and carrots. The plate is then garnished with some fried dill, a mysterious black chip with no discernible taste, and another set of bright green dots (probably the same as on the trout tartare) – obviously these things need some tweaks. For some reason, the dish costs double to triple the price of most other main courses.
The grilled venison with mashed potatoes and mushroom mousse somehow manages to push the meat to the background. The dish already looks bizarre in the menu photo, but the actual plate is far worse. That neon green sauce really has to go away now, and why oh why is it pooled onto pieces of raw onion??? The mushroom mousse that so oddly occupies the center of the plate is the same as the one that came with the deer tongue. The venison, which I barely remember, is complemented by a bit of lingonberry sauce.
The grilled meat platter includes (from left to right) pork neck, venison, and marbled beef roast with vegetables and sauce. The Pork neck is very good (it reminds me of my Serbian pork neck steak). So is the venison, which is served rare. The beef on the other hand is rather poor. Unlike what we see in the menu photo, they refused to cook it less than medium and won’t provide any explanation – I guess they preferred silence over “the chef fucked up and overcooked the roast.” Even for the cuts that weren’t overcooked, a plate of plain sliced meat without any jus isn’t terribly exciting. The vegetables turn out to be grilled leeks and cherry tomatoes, and the sauce is a mixture of horseradish and berries.
For dessert, the lingonberry cake alternates layers of sponge (it reminds me of a spice bread), lingonberry jam, and frosting. It’s garnished with some berry coulis, more lingonberries, and cake crumbs. The cake is a bit dry, but truly interesting local desserts and rare enough that I don’t want to complain.
I don’t know if the price range has anything to do with it (most mains cost $7-10), but many of Tundra’s dishes are somewhat disappointing. That’s really too bad, because they often put together perfectly good ingredient pairings.
We didn’t get to try many of the bar’s creations (which still baffles me, considering we came here after a visit to the local polar bear club!), but there are plenty to choose from. Like everywhere else in Russia, infused vodkas are trending and feature the usual berry flavors plus the inevitable horseradish. In addition to the long list of “regular” cocktails, there was also an unexpected selection of hot cocktails such as the spicy redcurrant toddy, made with roselle tea, Becherovka, vanilla syrup, lime juice, and redcurrant. They also sell a line of Tundra vodkas (all infused with deer antlers, some with a secondary flavor such as lingonberry or cloudberry), although they’re made in Kazan and seem to have no actual connection to the restaurant.
Below is a copy of the illustrated menu. The following dishes pique my curiosity: Kamchatka crab legs halved lengthwise and gratined with a wasabi sauce; halibut in miso sauce with cod liver “raffaello” (sounds nicer than “croquette”?), pita with venison and vegetables; bear jerky. But someone should tell the chef that calling diced cooked potatoes a potato tartare is ridiculous.Tundra12
And now, the list of all the ingredients mentioned on the menu – almost. I didn’t include the pizzas as they would distort the overall picture – Murmansk’s mozzarella and tomato sauce production is negligible, I assure you. But let’s mention some of Tundra’s creations: the North Sea (crab, shrimp, scallop, halibut, cherry tomatoes, cream cheese, sour cream, teriyaki sauce, parmesan, mozzarella), the Smoked Deer (smoked deer, cream cheese, arugula), the Seafood (salmon, shrimp, cod, tomatoes, tartar sauce, mozzarella), the Tundra (deer, veal, wild mushroom sauce, mozzarella). I also skipped the desserts again, because apart from the above lingonberry cake, the only interesting entry is wafer cones filled with caramelized sweetened condensed milk and served in an empty can of condensed milk. The rest is much less local – pineapple, anyone?
Tundra’s favorite ingredients don’t differ very much from Tsarskaya Okhota’s: mushrooms and potatoes; salmon, crab and scallops; beef and deer. The menu seems to consider vegetables as somewhat unimportant: most of the dishes either don’t mention any or just say “vegetables.” Yet the menu pictures show that they do turn up on patrons’ plates (in theory, at least): lettuce, spinach, cucumber, zucchini, tomato, corn, scallion, radish, carrot…
|bear, beef, beef brisket, beef steak (various cuts) x7, ground beef, chicken breast, chicken giblets, chicken wings, deer x6, rack of deer, deer sausage, deer steak, deer tongue, hare, pork fat (salo), pork loin steak, pork neck, pork ribs, turkey x2, veal, wild boar|
|alga, catfish, cod x3, cod liver, crab x2, Kamchatka crab x5, flounder, halibut x3, mackerel, salmon x2, Atlantic salmon x3, salmon roe x2, scallop x5, shrimp, tiger shrimp x2, squid x2, sturgeon caviar, polar trout, seafood (in salad)|
|beet, cabbage, carrot x2, corn, eggplant, garlic, lettuce, onion, potato x15, baby vegetables, pickled vegetables x3, fresh vegetables (in salad or as a side) x3, grilled vegetables (in salad or as a side) x3, vegetables x3 (as a side)|
|mushrooms x7, wild mushrooms|
|anise, miso, mustard x2, black pepper, spices x2, wasabi|
|pearl barley, quinoa|
|BBQ sauce x4, sweet chili sauce, chimichurri sauce x3, ginger-citrus dressing, hollandaise sauce, honey-citrus dressing, ketchup, mayonnaise, tartar sauce x2, truffle oil, yogurt dressing|
|cheese x2, artisanal cheese, soft cheese, heavy cream x4, sour cream, egg, feta, parmesan|
|burger bun, pita bread, toast, wheat chips|
|citrus, lingonberry x3, pear|