One of the best parts of living in Newton is the incredible variety of international cuisine from which we can choose when dining out. We have Mexican, Italian, Thai, Mediterranean, Japanese, Chinese and Irish fare, among others, available within the city limits.
But, according to their website, there is only one “taste of old Russia,” and that is Café St. Petersburg in Newton Centre.
The restaurant is truly a hidden gem, tucked between the shops and restaurants of Union Street and the bustle of Beacon Street. A brick path leads to a set of stairs that gently slope towards the restaurant’s entrance, decorated above with murals depicting scenes from Russia.
Ludmilla and Natan Slezinger own the restaurant, and their daughter Galina runs it. The younger Slezinger is named for her grandmother Galina, and it is this much-missed babushka (Russian grandmother) who created “90 percent of the recipes” at Café St. Petersburg.
But surprisingly, the older Galina is actually Natan’s mother and passed the recipes down to her daughter-in-law, knowing that she would do them justice.
“She was an amazing cook, a perfectionist,” recalls Slezinger fondly. “My mom had such a great relationship with her, even better than my father. And she learned from her.”
The original location of Café St. Petersburg was in Brookline, and when the Slezingers opened it in 1990 it was merely a small Russian deli. A fire in 1992 led the family to decide that they wanted a more full-service restaurant, and the expanded operation opened in 1993.
For its 12 years in Brookline, Café St. Petersburg was a favorite of the Russian community.
But their popularity also presented a problem. Even though they had two seatings on the weekends, the Slezingers simply were not able to serve as many of the fans of their authentic Russian cuisine as they would have liked.
So in 2006, they took over the current Newton Centre location, converting the old Princeton Review offices and classrooms into a homey, intimate restaurant with plenty of seating and a function room that has already seen its fair share of festivities.
“The Russian community likes to do parties, any little occasion is big,” laughs Slezinger. “Birthdays are big, bar mitzvahs, bridal showers, baby showers. We do everything for them, even the band.”
But it doesn’t have to be an occasion to enjoy the specialties of the house at Café St. Petersburg. Slezinger states that “real Russian food is peasant food,” and the menu reflects the earthy, comforting dishes that are customary in the Slezingers’ home country.
Of course, borscht (meat soup with beets, cabbage and potatoes) is one of the most popular starters. And you can indulge in blini (small pancakes, like a thicker crepe), caviar and smoked salmon, which according to Slezinger is the restaurant’s “signature dish.”
But her description of the chicken tabaka really sells that traditional Russian meal.
“It’s a whole little hen, that’s beaten up to death, made completely flat and marinated,” says Slezinger. “It’s pan-fried with a heavy weight on top. It becomes ultra crispy, so you have to eat it with your hands. And our garlic sauce that goes on top is to die for.”
If you truly want the full Café St. Petersburg experience, Slezinger suggests you try the house-infused cranberry vodka, made with fresh cranberries. Or, you can follow Natan’s suggestion and order the “vodka for real men,” infused with garlic and horseradish. True Russians will tell you that this fiery concoction can chase a cold or the flu right out of you.
The immersion into Russian culture isn’t limited solely to the food at Café St. Petersburg. On Thursdays through Sundays, they have a pianist in house who serenades patrons with a variety of traditional music. And Natan’s connections to the Russian theater community can lead to impromptu performances of poetry and dramatic readings.
The Slezinger patriarch is also an internationally lauded photographer. He and his craft are even immortalized in one of the ceramic pieces by local artist Katya Apekina that adorn the walls of the dining room.
The Slezinger family and Café St. Petersburg are proud of their involvement in both the Russian and Newton communities. In fact, for the second year in a row, they will be among those providing food for April’s From Russia With Arts and Culture at the Newton Cultural Center. Slezinger is very excited about this event.
“The artists are great. There is a big variety that they showcase,” Slezinger shares. “They even have original Russian singers. It’s a three-day event, but the Friday (April 19) is the big night, with so much going on.”
But if you can’t wait until April to get a taste of Russia, Café St. Petersburg and the Slezingers will be waiting to welcome you with warm food and warmer hospitality.