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Entries in Sochi Restaurant Review (2)


Mandarin Cafe and Nanuli Bigvava




Recently, I was invited by Nanuli Bigvava, the owner of the Mandarin Cafe in Sochi for a visit.  Her place is in on busy, central Vinogradnaya Street.  Despite its very good local reputation, I had never eaten there.   Nanuli, who is originally from Sukhum, Abkhazia, sets the gold standard for charming hostesses in Sochi.  Her warm and inviting presence alone makes Mandarin Cafe worth a visit.  



Nanuli invited me and several friends to sample the menu on her dime. That is pretty unusual here, anyway. Then we tried the food and I was surprised by the diversity and sophistication.  We had several salads, including one of fresh greens, avocado, tomato, shrimp and strawberry and, also, a seafood salad that really stood out.  I also tried the rib eye, which exceeded my expectations, with a surprisingly dry Russian red wine, Grand Vostok, from Krasnodar Region's wine producing district.  My companion had a simple, but very good warm spinach soup and enjoyed trying several of Nanuli's kitchen's deserts.  Given her heritage, I expected Nanuli's menu to be dominated by food of the Caucasus.  When I asked her about this, she quickly pointed out that in addition to her regular menu, her kitchen was ready to prepare the distinctive fare of Abkhazia.   



Nanuli has always been interested in food; she loved preparing dishes for her family growing up in her native Abkhazia. So there was no question in  her mind about the direction her life should take after she finished high school.  She came to Sochi to study at a culinary school.  (At that time, Abkhazia and Russia were both parts of the Soviet Union, so there was no border.  Now, the border between the two sits just past the Olympic Park.) Nanuli got married, had a son and opened a cafe in Sochi.  However, with conflict in Abkhazia in 1992, she sold her holdings to help out family displaced there.  

Eventually in 2010, Nanuli reopened in Sochi, this time the fashionable Mandarin Cafe.  Her menu is eclectic for Sochi, but she clearly is imaginative and likes to challenge herself and her staff to show something to diners that they don't regularly see in Sochi.  Nanuli eventually divorced, but wanted her son,  Slava,  to have an American education, so at the age of 19, he went to the United States and studied, later receiving his university degree there. He now works as an auditor for an oil company in Houston, Texas.  Slava, who is her biggest cheerleader and advisor, helps her with ideas that he sees in restaurants in the United States.  Indeed, it was Slava who reached out to me across 9 time zones and suggested that I meet with his mother.  

Nanuli is already thinking about the thousands of international diners who will come to Sochi.  There are plans for new international dishes on the menu and she openly solicited ideas from me about what American and western travelers might like to experience in the Mandarin Cafe.  This is not a one-size-fits-all, take-it-or-leave-it restaurant owner.  She has also begun the planning to get involved in catering for the Olympic period.  



Sochi's Celebrity Chef


Martial Simonneau the owner and head chef at Brigantina Cafe and Brasserie, took time this week to talk to me about his restaurant, his service ethos and the arc of his life from Normandy through Nice, Paris and Moscow to Sochi, where the Brigantina is the only French-owned and operated restaurant in the city center. Martial learned about the restaurant business from his parents' restaurant in Normandy.  He lived in Nice and and later in Paris, where he worked at the famous De la Paix Cafe for several years.  Eventually, Martial was hired to run the kitchen at a casino in Moscow.  In 2002, he came to Sochi to manage a restaurant in Krasnaya Polyana, where he worked for several years.  After this, he detoured to Yekaterinburg to run a casino.  Two years ago, drawn by the promise of Sochi, he moved back and opened Brigantina Cafe and Brasserie next to the seaport. His son, Bastien, a graduate of business school in Paris, has come to Sochi to help.  Martial and Bastien have opened a second cafe, Napoleon, a few blocks away on Vorovskovo Ulitsa, where they offer French baked goods. Theirs are the only locations in Sochi where one can buy a genuine French croissant.

The Brigantina, as evidenced by the photo, appeals to celebrities and political leaders visiting Sochi and is noted for offering the best and most consistent cuisine in Sochi.  Martial and Bastien are ever present, seeing to the needs of diners and assuring that all runs smoothly.   Martiall's ethic of attention to detail and, above all, the customer, is reflected in the well-trained staff.  I asked Martial, who was recently profiled in Forbes Russia, about his experiences with restaurant ownership in Sochi.  Martial said, with a laugh. that "in Russia everything is difficult, but nothing is impossible."  Martial and Bastien are planning to expand their operation to include other kinds of food service, including a bar/ cafe that will be designed to appeal to the underserved professional clientele seeking a place after work and in the evenings.  


Specialities at Brigantina include steak frites, mussels, escargot, oysters from France and live crab flow in from Canada.  The menu also offers several pasta and pizza selections and the wine list ranges from inexpensive local offerings to several very expensive Bordeaux wines.  The Brigantina stays open 24/7 and has both indoor and outdoor dining areas.