Never one to scurry from a piping bowl of borscht, admittedly, I don't often find them lurking in side streets in South East Asia. Apart from a visciously enlightening Ukrainian meal in Vung Tau, Vietnam, I have never come across Russian restaurants in this part of the world. Perhaps they have always been there, but I have been oblivious on my nightly hunts for ramen, pho or spicy curries. Nevertheless, rumour had it that Irina's was worthy of patronage, and I hastily boarded a waiting rickshaw to glide through the streets of PP, until I was dropped off at the majestic gates.
Inside was a peering wilderness of souless refuge. Not a single person trod the planks. Neither a waiter, not a proprietor, nor a customer gushing in revery. I took this as a sign that I had chosen an alluring hour for introverts, and placed myself at a table hidden in the garden spread. Within five minutes a peering face slid from the shadows, almost surprised to find me there, unannounced. Menu's were provided, arms behind back in prostrate patience, pen retrieved from shirt pocket, details of order written down, agreements made, questions about beverages, and back to the stillness within to begin the dance of culinary delights.
Looking around, I felt at times like i had stepped through some psychedelic rabbit hole, and ended up in a courtyard of "Valerie & Her Week of Wonders", walls plastered with merriment. The Christmas tree reminded me that it was indeed the festive season, one that I had entirely dislodged from memory. I sipped my lime soda and waited in trepidation.
From the time I tried my very first truly authentic borsht in a hotel restaurant in Minsk, the poor representations I had eaten over the years were thrown aside in the seduction of a new nymph. The comforting velvety allure with it's dottings of sour cream were the perfect ointment against the excesses of previous nights. I smelled the bowl as it arrived, and it smelt right.
The bowl was quenched in mere minutes. All of Minsk in it's barren beauty was suddenly about me. The old babushka who dragged her left foot as she served the food in that old statuesque hotel in a suburb long forgotten in travel withdrawals. It brought me back to the Ukraine, Moldova, Transnistria. This bowl was up there with some of the best I had ever eaten. Who would have thought, in a tiny alleyway near the bars and restaurants of Bassac Lane, was a place where you could for a moment close your eyes from the dust and cacaphony of Cambodian streets, and be transported back to a cold climate thousands of miles away. Isn't that just what makes travel so divine?
All these recommendations are just personal opinions based on my palate, things change, chefs get fired or replaced, places open-close, relocate, so take it all with a pinch of MSG and discover your own gems too. But please do try a few of these, they have been researched exhaustively.
"Sadness is tempered by umami, grief by the motion of slurping, hope restored by the ladling of glistening, fatty broth"