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As the weather gets colder and the nights longer, we seek out food that will warm us from the inside out. Although the usual comfort food we enjoy is souvlaki, there are times when warming food from a colder clime is just what we need. And that’s when we head to Valentina.

Valentina, hidden away in a neighborhood of Kallithea near the bustling avenue of Thiseos, is a Russian tavern that has been in business for nearly 25 years. The owner, for whom the restaurant is named, is of Pontian origin – that is, ethnically Greek and from the historical Pontus region, which is today part of Turkey, Russia and Georgia. Valentina lived in the USSR for a time but came to Greece about 30 years ago. She’s retired these days, and the restaurant is run by her children and their relatives.

Valentina, photo by Manteau StamThis is not a venue that you necessarily visit for ambiance. Valentina’s large dining room is spare and somewhat characterless, aside from a few matryoshka dolls, and adjoins an open kitchen, but it’s not actually possible to see what happens in there. We prefer to sit at one of the sheltered tables on the sidewalk to avoid the poor ventilation.

On a recent visit, we began with the Russian salad (also known as Salad Olivier): potatoes, peas, carrots, eggs, pickles and chicken are chopped into tiny dice and slightly salted, then combined with just enough mayonnaise to bind all the ingredients together. Instead of our forks, we used lipioshka to ferry the salad to our eagerly awaiting mouths. This doughnut-shaped unleavened bread had a thin, crisp, delicious crust and came to the table warm. As soon as the pirozhki arrived, we filled our shot glasses with vodka. Between Standard, Absolut, Parliament and Stolichnaya vodkas, the choice is, of course, a matter of personal taste; in fact, the group at the table next to us seemed to enjoy their Russian Baltika beers well enough.

The handmade pirozhki are Valentina’s most popular appetizers and can sell out quickly. The potato-filled version was tasty but a little on the starchy side, while the one stuffed with ground meat we found more balanced and intriguing. These deep-fried savory pastries are not light eating, but the vodka cuts through the grease and heft. We unfortunately did not have enough room to try the cheese version, but we’ll happily return for it.

The main courses are divided into roasted and stewed dishes. From the former, we tried the lamb shashlik. The tender cut is accompanied by thinly sliced onions and freshly cooked French fries. Pelmeni, one of our favorite dishes, are dumplings filled with ground meat and served with smetana, Russian sour cream. On a previous visit, we had tasted also the varenyky, a similar dish of Ukrainian origin that’s stuffed with soft cheese, butValentina, photo by Manteau Stam we had found it unmemorable and not as rich and flavorful as the pelmeni. We do, however, recommend the classic beef Stroganoff, the perfect rendition of the creamy braised beef dish, served with wonderfully comforting mashed potatoes.

To cap it all off, we had the traditional small piece of chocolate salami and some hot tea, with water heated in a samovar.

The food at Valentina is honest – minimally seasoned and pleasingly uncomplicated, allowing the ingredients to speak for themselves. We ate and drank lavishly, and spent less than €15 per person. That fact, as well as the pirozhki and pelmeni, kept us warm all the way home.

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Published on December 02, 2013

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