Among the staunchest foodie values is a solemn respect for so-called ‘peasant food’ – the rustic one-pot stuff which, we romantically imagine, raisin-faced nonnas and the cast of the Olivio ads eat among rustling vines and tumbling plains, lunching on lycopene and snoozing in hammocks all afternoon. ‘Oh, it’s just a typical French peasant dish,’ simpers Georgina as she sets down her Le Creuset, lifting the lid on a daube of Lidgate’s beef and rare-variety carrots from the weekly Abel & Cole. In good times, it’s true that life as a Tuscan or Provençal farm-hand was rich in fish, flesh and fowl. The same, though, couldn’t be said for the Russian serf, scraping existence from taiga and steppe. The food of the poor is always with us – so now we find even this ‘peasant food’ in one of London’s smartest areas.
I’ve eaten a range of food in Russia. In a school dining room in the foothills of the Urals, I was served ashen gristle swimming in the stuff that birds regurgitate into the mouths of their young. On train journeys lasting days, I munched on pickled herring with soured cream and wispy fronds of dill; and in the kitsch fakery of Moscow’s Café Pushkin, I guzzled spoonfuls of Beluga with the sickly local ‘champagne’. (Jay Rayner writes about this singularly bogus place with hilarious precision in The Man Who Ate the World.) I’ve eaten far better in Poland, as it happens – swollen knuckles of steaming pork, kotlete and those squidgy dumplings, pierogi, and my favourite, the sweet-salt soup żurek, made with fermented rye bread and utterly delicious. It’s all good, sunless grub, filling and honest, and I welcome its appearance here.
Trojka – pronounced troika – serves unapologetic and rarely bastardised dishes from Poland and Russia: herring with beetroot and potatoes, bigos (‘hunter’s stew’), ‘gypsy latke’ (a kind of goulash) and shashlik kebabs. If the prophets of doom are right, and we shall all soon be sitting down to boiled turnip by candlelight, food here might make a good introduction. Primrose Hill, one of the prettiest streets in London, offers the best ground-level view of the thrumming city – the rearing battalion of Canary Wharf, the nobbled greys and reds of the West End, the great arc of Wembley, the frozen twist of the Gherkin. Sweet B, the mother of an old friend, won dinner here in a raffle. The room is coloured in gold-leaf and lung: there’s a kind of depressed luxuriance to the spartan tables, the uncarpeted floor, the harried air of the waitresses. We’re told to sit in a murky corner of the room, within earshot of the swearing kitchen. After a Siberian winter, the food appears.
Herring fillet has a silvery sheen – fishy and firm, marrying well with bloodied beetroot and some dependable potatoes, although the ‘tartare sauce’ turns out to be nothing more than soured cream. Borschtch, that violet classic, is a refreshing consommé with a good dairy dollop. Blinis are soft and bready, with a sour nuttiness from their buckwheat, topped by more herring and an uninspiring salad of dry cucumber slices and raw, shredded carrot. Then coulibiak – a pie of salmon, mushrooms, spinach and rice. It’s a gloomy dish, the pastry sagging towards sogginess, and I suspect this isn’t the first incarnation of the salmon. The accompanying tomato sauce is thin and insipid. A hunter’s stew is something of a raid on the freezer: smoked sausage, chicken and beef, but its dark brown sauce is silkily good with sauerkraut, a good spoon of mash bringing the ingredients to harmony. For pudding, a pancake is rich and sugary, stuffed with tangy cream cheese, but spurted with horrible aerosoled cream.
It’s a credit to the owners of Trojka that, in the age of Baltic and Wódka, and with rockstars and supermodels only round the corner, they’ve remained seemingly unmotivated by greed. The borschtch is £2.50 a bowl, and is probably the cheapest starter I’ve ever reviewed. Caviar aside, the most expensive dish is a sirloin steak at £9.50 – a steal when the kitchen is this competent. Though there’s some evidence of scrimping on ingredients, and the service is rather patchy, overall it’s difficult to find too much to complain about when most of the food was very tasty. I’d happily go back the next time I’m in the area, and you can’t say much more than that, can you?
Trojka, 101 Regents Park Road, Primrose Hill, London NW1
Tel. +44 (0)20 7483 3765
Dinner for four, excluding drinks and service, costs about £50