Café Bayan - Falling into steppe

Café Bayan

Is it time to ditch broth for borscht? Bronwen Livingstone investigates Argyle Street’s Russian Revolution

Entering Café Bayan, your eye is drawn to an enormous, mauve-toned mural depicting Scottish and Russian luminaries. In the Scots corner, Burns; in the Russian corner, Pushkin and Tchaikovsky; and, floating incongruously between the two, a tiny depiction of the New York Dolls.

It’s a curiously fitting image in this culture-blending newcomer. Opened to generate funds for the Scotland-Russia Trust, a charity involved with economic regeneration in Russia and at home, Café Bayan focuses on food and presentation of genuine quality.

But, really – Russian food? ‘What most people understand as Russian food is actually Soviet food,’ says Anna Dyer, chair of the trust. ‘Pre-Revolution, the chefs in the grand hotel restaurants were all French.’
As communism arrived, the chefs left and the nation’s food reverted to peasant fodder. Dyer remembers her first experiences eating in Russia with a grimace. ‘It was absolutely dreadful. They were just filling people up with whatever they had – things like meatballs and macaroni for breakfast. Horrible.’

Enter Paul O’Malley, a young chef trained at Cameron House and Oloroso, keen to run his own kitchen. He immersed himself in the food history of Eastern Europe for three months, allowing him and his brother Chris to recreate the Russo-French style of cooking, with a little Scottish flair thrown in.

He reworks Scotch egg as ‘Ukrainian egg’ – with confit egg yolk, Kovbasa sausage and a beetroot relish – sets pelmeni dumplings of salmon and crayfish swimming in a lobster broth, and fills flaky, crescent-shaped pirozhki pastries with winning combinations such as beetroot and goat’s cheese. Soups are particularly strong: he gives pea and barley a lift by adding baby broad beans, lardons and pea shoots, and lets horseradish and roast roots work their magic on traditional borscht.

There is a tapas-style menu day and night and, with every item coming in under £5, it’s justifiably popular. He adds new dishes every week, many suggested by his fellow workers from Russia, Bulgaria, Poland and Hungary.

In the six months since opening, poets, writers, émigrés and Russian conversation groups have found a welcome, bringing to mind romantic images of the intellectual revolutionary huddles of the Soviet era. Café Bayan’s approach is rather more jolly, however – the projector screen was recently pressed into service for a Russian karaoke night and in March a group of Kazakhs celebrated a national holiday with a banquet. Dyer has more themed evenings planned, including an old Soviet night. Although, even then, it’s doubtful that macaroni and meatballs will make it onto the menu.