Updated  
February, 23 2014 20:31:30

From Russia with love...and soup

Soup for the soul: The restaurant serves hearty soups like borscht and solyanka alongside dense black bread imported from Moscow.

At the recently opened Cafe Berezka in Cau Giay District, Anna Voznesenskaya and her brother serve homestyle dishes like pelmeny and sirniki in a cosy tube house. Elisabeth Rosen reports.

"In Russia we eat everything with bread," I'm told as the first course arrives.

I can see why. Imported from Moscow, the bread at Cafe Berezka is dense and black and flecked with herbs, ideal for a winter night. To accompany it, we order homemade soups like borscht, a mild beet broth filled with cabbage and onion, and solyanka, a sour salami soup far less bizarre than it sounds. Everything comes with bowls of homemade sour cream, a condiment that is to Russian food as chili sauce is to Vietnamese pho.

With the Sochi Winter Olympics in the news and the weather in Ha Noi turning once again chilly, what better time to sample Russian food? Cafe Berezka, which opened five months ago, is an ideal place to do so. Just as at a Vietnamese wedding, the tables are already set with shot glasses. If vodka isn't to your taste, there is kompot, a bright red juice made from dried or canned fruit that tastes like liquid strawberry jam.

With Christmas trees wrapped in glittery ornaments and the owner's children running up and down the stairs, the cozy restaurant in Cau Giay District feels more like a home than a coffee shop. Indeed, Berezka is a family-run endeavor:Anna Voznesenskaya does the cooking together with her brother, who owns the house. On the second floor, there are private dining rooms; on the third, large groups can partake in karaoke.

I visited Berezka with two friends from Ukraine and Kazakhstan who were nostalgic for the food of their native region. While there were minor disputes over authenticity (do olives belong in solyanka? Should borscht be eaten with buckwheat?) there was general consensus that Voznesenskaya's cooking was the best Russian option in Ha Noi - more flavourful than rival Cafe CCCP and not much more expensive.

All homemade: Sirniki, thick farmer's cheese pancakes with a slight sweetness and crispy exterior. — VNS Photos Elisabeth Rosen

As it turned out, it was a good idea to bring translators: the menu is only in Russian, although Voznesenskaya speaks a bit of English and Vietnamese. Watching us pore over the menu, she suggested that we order pelmeny and varenniki, rich homemade dumplings served in a pool of melted butter. She didn't steer us wrong. We easily devoured the varenniki, filled with strips of cabbage caramelised to creamy tangles, then pelmeny, stuffed with a mixture of beef and pork and eaten with a dash of vinegar and black pepper.

After the soup and dumplings, the feast was just getting started. Under my friends' guidance, we ate sirniki, gently sweetened farmer's cheese pancakes with a crispy exterior, and nutty grains of buckwheat called grechka. If you somehow manage to command an appetite after all that, order mashed potatoes. Served in a massive, creamy pile with ribbons of lettuce, they could conquer any hunger.

Cafe Berezka

Address: 239 Tran Dang Ninh, Dich Vong, Cau Giay

Tel.: 04 3993 8484

Price Range: VND100,000-200,000

Dishes to Try: Pelmeny, grechka, sirniki

Voznesenskaya, who works as an accountant, has no formal training as a chef. Indeed, her cooking has zero presentation or fanfare, and some details can be off-putting, like the heap of sliced olives that topped our bowl of solyanka. Over 15 years living in Ha Noi, however, she's acquired a justifiable reputation among her friends for serving reliable comfort food.

At the end of the meal, we were surprised by the appearance of pryanik, a large, crumbly cookie with apricot jam in the centre. Cut into slices, it's reminiscent of a biscotti, only softer - a Russian Pop-Tart, if you will. As we divided the last slice into bite-size pieces, there were audible sighs of nostalgia. — VNS

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