The house of Russian delights

February 19, 2023 - 07:45
You would be hard pushed to find one better CCCP Café and Restaurant in Hà Nội’s bustling Ba Đình District.
PICKLE PLATE: The restaurant's simple tasty fare was hard to beat.

By Carlos Ottery

For rather obvious historical reasons, socialist countries the world over tend to have a slew of decent Russian restaurants, and Việt Nam can count itself among them. But you would be hard pushed to find one better CCCP Café and Restaurant in Hà Nội’s bustling Ba Đình District.

The restaurant, created by the owner Svetlana when her Vietnamese husband suffered a stroke over 15 years, with its retro Marx-Engles-Lenin logo, is a low-key affair and is unlikely to win any awards for interior design.

Five large wooden tables sit in a smallish room as a TV blazes obscure pop music in the background; it feels almost like you have stumbled into someone’s living room just after they have hastily rearranged the tables for a family party.

SOUP-ER GOOD: The borscht was thick and rich.

Nevertheless, you will care little for the décor once you get into the varied menu, which serves as something of a Russia’s Greatest Hits selection. All the major highlights are there: caviar, dumplings, borsht, salads, pickles, salami, black bread, kvass, beer, vodka, herring, mackerel, kompot, shashlick, and more.

If you crave a classic Russian dish, you will find it here. And the food is not experimental, fancy or fusion either, but simple home-style dishes like babushka would make. In this case, literally so, as Svetlana could not help showing us pictures of her new grandchild as we left.

The Vietnamese often stereotype Russian cuisine as fatty, but it’s an unfair categorisation. In fact, Russia has a well-balanced culinary fare. For every heavy-dumpling, a salad; for every rich made, a tray of pickles to cut through it. Russian cuisine is a joy, and often overlooked internationally for trendier choices. It’s a great shame.

Our party of five were a bit overwhelmed by the menu, which felt like it ran to a dozen pages, so to avoid stress and hassle, we ordered a bit of everything. This is certainly a restaurant that skews better for groups than, say, a solo-diner.

SUCCULENT SALAMI: Endless meaty goodness was offered with the cold cuts. VNS Photos Hoàng Thanh Nga

We started off with a round of Baltika lagers, a basket of black bread and butter, a large platter of cold meats and cheese, a tray of pickled vegetables, and some brined herring. The beer was cold, the bread a triumph, the meat and cheese platter, fresh and tasty, the fish divine, and the pickles delightfully balancing out any saltiness.

Next up were the two soups (a large solyanka, and a large borscht), Russian institutions, and there was enough for all four of us to try both. The solyanka struck just the right balance of sour and sweet, and the smokiness of the meat was clearly discernable.

The borscht was a tour de force, the best I have tasted. I am no expert, but it is a dish that can be watery, having all the colour of beetroot but without packing the flavour. This was the opposite: thick and rich, with a large dollop of sour crème floating in the centre.

The soups were followed by a creamy Russian salad, and a more acidic coleslaw, which was fragrant with dill, and had just the right amount of crunch. Both came with a respectful, though a not overbearing amount of mayonnaise, not always a strength of Russian salads, but they were pitch-perfect here.

The meal half-way through, it was clear, we were having a pretty spectacular dining experience, and wondered if anything would disappoint (there’s always something, right?). A brief argument broke out between a husband and wife at our table. Husband said the food was a solid 8.5. Wife thought it was 9.5. This reviewer will split the difference and give it a 9.

Still not sated, two trays of potato (one boiled with dill, and the other wedges fried in garlic) were brought out alongside a bowl of pork pelmeni dumplings in cream, some chebureki (thin pasties), and a large pork, and a large lamb shashlick. At this point, we studiously ordered our third round of beers and a half litre of ice-cold vodka. A meal of this quality needed lubrication.

The chebureki was the first and only dish on the menu that didn’t get rave reviews, which is not to say they were bad, far from it. They would make a perfectly serviceable beer snack, but they didn’t sing like the other dishes and were a touch on the bland side. The same cannot be said for the shashlick, great hunks of fantastically seasoned meat skewered and grilled, moist and with just the right amount of fat. Kebabs fit for kings.

We ordered dessert, pretty much for the sake of good form, a Napoleon and a Medovik cake. Without wishing to over-egg the puddings (sorry) they were both superb -- the former all creamy goodness, the second a honeyed delight. Neither were too sweet.

Dishes here range from around VND70 to 300,000, and our bill came to a shade over 3 million (about US$125 in total) -- great value considering it included plenty of drinks, well over half the menu, as well as pudding.

With its no-nonsense service and unfussy décor, CCCP Café and Restaurant doesn’t jump out as a top restaurant, that is, until you try the sensational food. It is easy to see why it has become something of a Hà Nội institution among expats and locals alike. It's worth reserving a table as it is often full.

It was a near-perfect meal, and we are already planning to book again. Highly recommended.VNS

CCCP Café and Restaurant

Address: 03, Alley 84 Ngoc Khanh, Tap The Mac Le Nin, Giang Vo, Ba Dinh, Ha Noi

Phone: +84 815 277 835

Opening: 11am -10pm

Comment: Fantastic Russian classics made in a simple home-style