Over Anichkov Bridge, along the Fontanka, away from Nevsky… And breathe! Ulitsa Pestelya is an oasis away from St Petersburg’s great thoroughfare and is a mute when compared to its riotous cousin, Liteyny. On this street, right in the middle, sits the remarkable little Cafe Botanika
For the vegetarians of St Petersburg, Botanika is sacred ground and has been so for many a year and even claims to be the oldest vegetarian restaurant in the city. Being a man that has recently stopped eating meat (though I persevere with all things seafood), it is refreshing to find a place that takes such immense pride in highlighting the joys of an herbivorous menu.
Now you may already be yawning at the prospect of yet another self-satisfied liberal hotspot, but I can assure you that Botanika is anything but a moral-crusader—there is absolutely no pretence and all are welcome. I’ve already visited three or four times this year and each time I’ve enjoyed its unique ability to make you feel like you are at an old friend’s.
Part of this charm lies in the restaurant’s youngest visitors. Children are positively encouraged to join in on the fun—the quiet racket they create from the playroom around the corner forms the backbone of the celebratory atmosphere found therein. For me, however, Botanika’s biggest draw is its terrace. It is not always easy to find a nice place to sit outside in St Petersburg and enjoy a meal without having to shout into the ear of your companion above the roar of racing Ladas, but Pestelya street is difficult to beat for its peace and cleanliness.
The sheer width of Botanika’s menu is something of a concern. The offering is largely Indian in nature, as one might expect given India’s place as champion veggie, but there is a slightly irritating Italian who, like Britain in the EU, sits at the table upsetting everything. Despite having a deliciously fresh, wonderfully cooked pasta dish that would rival many of the city’s specialist Italians, I can’t help but feel the menu would be better served without it – Italian food is too predictable for such an interesting place. There is a Russian there as well, but he is quiet and well-mannered, offering only the simplest of traditional soups and pies that are always most welcome.
The closest Botanika comes to lecturing is also in the menu. Quotations from famous vegetarians take root on one page but they are gentle—“animals are my friends, I don’t eat my friends”, thought Bernard-Shaw—“fair enough,” thought I.
There is no need to go into too much detail about the different things on offer there, as I believe that should remain a surprise. I will say though that the starters and mains have always impressed (‘Hindi Bindi’, a crunchy okra curry and ‘Palak Paneer’, a creamy spinach and paneer mess are well-worth trying). The puddings, on the other hand, are the biggest disappointment. Reading their descriptions is like listening to an orchestra warming up, tantalising in its potential. The pudding arrives, however, and one soon realises that the conductor is drunk and that the violinists have no thumbs.
If you are keen to try something a little bit different that won’t cost you very much, I cannot recommend Botanika highly enough—who knows, you may even find you’ve got green fingers!
7 Pestelya Street