From Russia with love: borscht, Chekhov & all that

Dinner in Kapulia, illustration by Esther Gilman from I Have Considered My Days, 1963
My father, theatre critic Richard Gilman,  traveled to the Soviet Union in 1989 to research his seminal book on Chekhov’s plays. Harboring visions of Tolstoy, Gogol and the Cherry Orchard, he anticipated hearty, heavy meals of vodka, black bread and steaming meat and beet borscht. There were none. As in most Communist countries, conserving culinary tradition was at the bottom of the list. He reported going to bed on an empty stomach night after night. Boiled potatoes, cabbage and meat were as ‘gourmet’ as it got. If it got. Apparently things have changed and as in many renewed democracies, the new Russia has revived its cuisine.  Caviar and shashlik are now to be found. Vodka flows.

The Russian presence in Mexico, however, is small. Unlike New York, we have neither baths nor a Tea Room. An occasional “empanadas Rusas” stand pops up, nothing much 'old country' about it (there’s one at the corner of Insurgentes and Tlaxcala) but otherwise the Grand Tenochtitlán is a bleak blini-challenged, empty samovar.

Russian Roulette: Kolobok
So how or why a tow-headed Siberian family landed in El D.F. and opened Kolobok Restaurante Ruso is a mystery. It’s one of the few Russian restaurants in the city.  The popular spot on the corner of Santa Maria la Ribera’s Alameda offers such iron curtain classics as borscht and palmeni (like the Polish pyrogi, dumplings). Unfortunately the food tends to be bland, more an odd cultural experience than interesting ethnic eating. (see my article on Santa Maria la Ribera in the NewYork Times)

The lovely chilanga  Natasha, who offers classes in Russian language, has tried Kolobok. She reports, in her charming Russian-accented Spanish, that their food is “too simple, too few ingredients are used; I left dissatisfied.” Considering the probable ingredient options in Siberia, that doesn’t surprise me. So, for do-it-yourselfers, Natasha generously shares her own family recipe for beet borscht, nothing like the one-dimensional cold stuff you may know from NY’s Carnegie Deli. It's a heartwarming, complex one bowl dinner that Anna Karenina herself would have loved. Natasha's insistent that you use good, rich stock and grate the raw garlic on at the end "...to give it perfume."

The lovely Natasha

Borscht Natasha

2 Tb vegetable oil
Beets 750g (1.5 lb), peeled
Onion 250g (1/2 lb)
Cabbage 250g (1/2 lb)
Carrot 2 medium, 125g (1/4 lb)
Tomatoes 2 plum or 250g (1/2 lb)

6 cups good, rich meat stock, beef or pork, preferably homemade
2 or 3 Tb wine vinegar, or to taste
1 Tb tomato paste
½ ts dill seed
Salt and pepper to taste
1 large clove garlic

Sour cream or plain yogurt

Finely mince the onion. Grate the beets, carrots and cabbage using the fine side of a grater. Heat the oil in a sturdy soup pot. Sauté the onion for a few minutes; add the beets, then the carrot and cabbage. Stir with a wooden spoon until vegetables are softened, about 6 or 7 minutes. Add stock, tomato paste, dill . Grate in whole tomatoes. Bring to a simmer, partially covered, stirring occasionally, and cook for 1 1/2 hours .
Add vinegar, salt and pepper. Grate in the garlic clove.

Serve with a dollop of cream. And some nice rye bread if you can find it. Maybe a shot of vodka or two.

Приятного аппетита!

Kolobok Restaurante Ruso
Salvador Díaz Mirón 87, Col. Santa María la Ribera
Open daily, 10AM to 8PM

An explanation from the author: I only write what I believe. All opinions here are educated but subjective.  For the most part, I only publish reviews about places I like, and I try to be forgiving of minor faults. Mexico City is not Paris and I am not Michelin.  If I don't like it I  don't write about it except, in some cases where the hype or fame may merit the negative criticism. So take it all with a grain of salt. N.G.


  1. There is another Kolobok on Av. Universidad just north of Eje 6, close to Division del Norte metro station.

  2. For people who come from that side of the world, food is delicious! Kolobok offers homemade grandma's type of food :) and once you try Shuba (salad with beet and herring) and that amazing honey cake for dessert... Russian food lover you become!