“We have the best vodka in town,” Alisa Sok claimed proudly, as she handed a copy of the spirit menu to Good Times2 during our visit last week.
The Uzbekistani wasn’t kidding. Alisa took over the Irina Russian Restaurant from her mother four years ago and it boasts an impressive vodka selection. Everything from luxurious Beluga to Russian Standard Vodka – the staple in most Soviet households – is available.
“Other restaurants might have wine, whiskey or beer, but we decided to offer a variety of vodka. There is also no need for you to buy a big bottle because we offer it in several sizes – depending on how drunk you wish to be at the end of the meal!” the 36-year-old laughed.
“In my culture, it’s traditional to pair certain foods with a shot of vodka, so we want our customers to have an authentic Russian experience,” she added. “When you eat borscht (beetroot sour soup), it is customary for you to down a shot just to whet the appetite. We also surprise customers who order vodka our homemade pickles, on the house. It is the perfect pairing; the vodka goes down smoothly.”
Irina isn’t a newcomer to Phnom Penh’s food scene. Named after Alisa’s mother, who now lives in Moscow, the restaurant had a humble beginning in 1999 with only four sets of tables and chairs to accommodate diners.
“My family came here in 1995 and they liked Cambodia so much that they decided to stay,” Alisa explained. “We started small in this Khmer-style flat near the Russian Embassy and
gradually over the years we expanded to a fully-fledged restaurant in this villa.”
Alisa is talking about the two-storey building on Street 29 that has housed Irina for several years now. The striking exterior – graced with a hand-drawn mural featuring Russian folk-style patterns (known as Khokhloma) in splashes of red and white makes sure passers-by won’t miss it.
Step inside and the interior is everything you would imagine a Russian home to look like. Curtains covered with more Khokhloma hang from the windows, while Matryoshka dolls of all sizes and colours line up against the wall. There is also a private dining room, named ‘Back to USSR’ on the second floor, which can host up to 20 people. The name is Irina’s little homage to the glory days of the Soviet Union.
“We had always wanted to make it a themed restaurant with an extra Russian zing. Over the years, we had the decorations brought over, one by one, from Russia,” she said. “We allow customers to play with the ornaments because we know they find them interesting. We encourage kids, especially, to play with the nesting dolls because it helps with their cognitive functions.”
While Russian cuisine is less popular among global foodies when compared to say, Thai or Indian cuisine, Alisa claims that it is suitable for all palettes.
“Russian cuisine is so varied because so much of it originated from somewhere else like Georgia or Ukraine – it is all mixed up. We have all the flavours combined so everyone can enjoy almost everything on the menu,” she said. “If you are into Asian dishes, there will be something on the menu with rice. If you prefer European food, we also have meaty things and pastries with sauces. We also use a lot of carrots and beetroots in our dishes so they are very healthy.”
For those who do not know where to start, Alisa recommends trying Irina’s set business lunch, featuring a three-course meal for only $9. It is available from 12pm-4pm on Monday to Friday.
For appetisers, customers can opt for a feta cheese salad, a chicken salad or a salmon salad. For soup, the choices include cream of mushroom, chicken noodle, borscht or svekolnik (cold beet soup).
Meanwhile, for the main course, choices include pork golubtsi (cabbage rolled in either mushroom or tomato sauce), pelmeni (ravioli-like dumplings) or vareniki (traditional Ukranian dumplings).
“I know there are people who are keen to try but they are concerned about the prices so with the set business lunch, we keep it affordable. It is also our way of recommending dishes to customers – try these because they truly are the best,” Alisa explained.
Other must-try dishes include the shuba salad (also rather comically known as ‘herring under fur coat’), pierogi (Russian-style pies) and beef stroganoff. Alisa said Irina also welcomes any requests for Russian dishes that are not on the menu, provided the ingredients are available in Cambodia.
Irina Russian Restaurant is open daily from 11.30am to 10.30pm. For delivery, call 012 833 524 or 098 833 524. Keep your eyes on their Facebook page for more information on the latest promotions.