At the eastern end of Friedrichshain, on the gritty stretch of Boxhagener Straße before the S-Bahn bridges crisscross over cheap bakeries and Spätis, there’s a hidden gem: Matrëshka. This sparse café, enlivened only by Russian folk paraphernalia (including the eponymous dolls) and a soundtrack of sentimental Russian 1980s hits, is like no other in Berlin. There is no retro-chic furniture, no pictures of Soviet space or literary heroes. No vintage nonsense.
As for the food – it’s best described as Soviet soul food. The soups (borsch, soljanka or the meatless “Cossack Spätzle Soup”) taste like they were made by a card-carrying babushka. Both salads – the “Vinegrett”, a dense dish of beets, kidney beans, sauerkraut and potatoes dressed with the distinctive taste of roasted sunflower oil, and the “Olivje”, a classic “Russian salad” comprising potatoes, ham, peas and pickles coated in a joghurt-mayo dressing – are the real thing. For the main course, we ordered the stuffed green peppers and the roast chicken in garlic sauce (both served with mash), plus a plate of “homemade-this-morning” Russian ravioli, or “pelmeni” in Pushkin’s language (vegetarians: order the wareniki). Hot, hearty and satisfying, free of unnecessary garnish and pretentious big plates – every dish tasted homecooked. And they more or less are: Matrëshka’s Russki-German owner David Lang has five ex-Soviet ladies taking turns behind the stove and they obviously know their stuff.
There’s also no lack of authenticity in the menu’s lone dessert: blinis (thin, very thin – as the Russians like them) with a multitude of fillings, from caramel condensed milk to apple sauce to strawberrry jam (€0.90 for one; €4.20 for five). The drinks are also genuinely ex-Soviet and thoroughly soul-warming: Stalin’s favourite Georgian wine, the semi-dry, peppery Kvanchkara; Baltica beer; and, to round it all off, an interesting collection of vodkas (from plain, to birch and pine-nut variations). As for the prices, they’re irresistible: it’s €3.90 for any of the mains; €4.90 for two courses (starter and main); and €9.50 for a five-course feast. If you come during Happy Hour (Mon-Fri 15-18:00), it’s even cheaper!