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Taste of Russia in the capital

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090520_21.jpg

Phnom Penh's Irina restaurant offers Russian cuisine and top-notch vodka.

Photo by: Sovann Philong

Irina Russian Restaurant. 

All vodka is not created equal

The name vodka is a diminutive form of voda, the Russian word for water, and means "little water" or "pet water". It can be distilled from any starch or sugar-rich plant matter.
But not all vodka brands are equal, says Irina Godlesvstaya, chef and owner of Irina restaurant.  "Vodka is like all drinks.

If you make it carefully with attention and with heart, it will be good," she said.

Godlesvstaya says "real" vodka always contains 40 percent alcohol. If it is more or less than that, it's not vodka, she says, even though companies may still call it that. Russian standards for vodka production were introduced in 1894 by Alexander III, and classic Russian, Lithuanian and Polish vodka is 40 percent, or 80 proof. The European Union sets a minimum standard of 37.5 percent alcohol by volume for vodka. Godlesvstaya says Russian vodka has recently gone downhill, so she has been forced to buy her vodka from a local distributor. "I taste and choose the vodka, and I can tell whether it's real or fake," Godlesvstaya said. A vodka connoisseur, Irina says she looks for vodka distilled in Singapore. "Usually vodka from Singapore is good vodka," she said, adding that high-quality vodka should be free of unintended impurities and flavours.

David Gainsboro

Hidden on a side street in a residential area far from the hustle and bustle of the waterfront is Irina, Phnom Penh's only Russian restaurant.

It may seem odd to eat food from one of the coldest countries in the world in an equatorial country such as Cambodia, but have no fear. While heavy, the food is delicious.

Irina restaurant offers traditional Russian food in a relaxed atmosphere with excellent service and exceptional vodka. The restaurant recently celebrated its 10th anniversary and has been in its current location on street 352 for three years.

The owners, who never wanted to be locked into one place, have relocated seven times over the years.

"We rented, and we jumped like frogs," said the restaurant's co-owner, Irina Godlevstaya. "It was not so easy."

In the beginning, the restaurant had only four tables and was a veritable hole-in-the wall, said Godlevstaya.

She and her husband, Gennadiy, who were in a partnership with some local people, borrowed US$2,000 to open their own place.

And the restaurant has come a long way since its inception.

In its current incarnation, three years into a five-year lease, Irina's has both indoor and outdoor seating areas, each with space for approximately 20 people.

While the ambience of the restaurant seems to suffer from a bit of an identity crisis, it works.

The outside, with its thatched roof, offers an open-air, tiki-bar feel. The eclectic collection of Russian memorabilia on the walls is juxtaposed with smooth American background jazz, clean table settings and white tablecloths.

The vodka

Before looking at the menu, there is an important decision to be made: How much of the top-notch vodka will you drink? A single shot, a 100 gram mini-pitcher or a whole liter?

The waiters refill the shot glasses very quickly, so watch out - the drinks may soon catch up with you.

A few years ago, Godlesvstaya distilled small batches of vodka using a family recipe given to her by her mother.

She altered the recipe to use local ingredients, such as pineapple, and gave the vodka to friends and special patrons as gifts.

Unfortunately for many, the homemade vodka never even appeared on the menu.

The food

The food at Irina is all pretty heavy, and the flavour profiles are simple. The palate is overwhelmed with salt, oil, root vegetables such as potatoes and beets, and butter.

The entrees are all similar, the only variation being whether they are fried, minced, stuffed or baked.

I would suggest the shepherd's pie or beshbarmak, an Uzbek-style lasagna, both of which are smaller and lighter than the oil-rich Irina special.

The appetisers with a higher salt content pair especially well with the vodka. The flavors are intense, and I recommend getting a few appetisers for the table and sharing to experience some different flavors.

Try a variety of chasers for the vodka as well as the pickles. One of my favorites was the selyodka, a Russian-style salted fish. This light sushi-like fish is served with thinly sliced onions and just melts in your mouth.

The borsch was another standout. It's a little salty, with a distinctive flavour of beets, carrots and potatoes in a light broth.  

Whether you are looking for a whole meal or just some appetisers, next time you are going out for drinks, consider Irina, a great place to enjoy Russian appetisers and high-quality spirits. 

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