Longtime Phnom Penh institution, Irina has undergone a minor makeover after being placed in new hands. Vodka, potatoes and many kinds of dumplings await. Words by Erin Hale; photography by Lucas Veuve.
The golden entrance plaque in front of Irina gives you a good idea of what to expect inside: Russian and English writing identifies the building as USSR’s Sihanoukville Consulate. This unique piece of history was found by the eponymous Irina and her husband years ago, but it has inspired their daughter Alice Sok in its renovation.
After recently taking over the restaurant, Sok is doing swift business with a revamped Soviet theme. A 1950s-themed private dining room is decked out in the best of Moscow’s flea markets, and military uniforms hang next to its outdoor seating. It’s the revamped menu, though, that takes diners on a real tour of the former Soviet Republics, with authentic dishes from Ukraine, Russia, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Just ask the Russian-speaking Khmer community, who make up a significant customer base.
“The most popular items are Russian dumplings, borscht, and our ‘Irina’s special’. People are really coming back for it.” says Sok. “It’s baked potatoes with some meat and vegetables, and mushrooms. It’s made with cream sauce. It’s a chewy, gooey, cheesy thing.”
The Irina’s Special ($9.50) is as delicious as it sounds, and worth every extra calorie that comes with the baked cheese topping and perfectly sautéed potatoes underneath. Keep in mind it takes at least 20 minutes to prepare, so Sok suggests sampling some dumplings in the meantime.
There’s Russian pelminis ($5 to $6.50), a handmade “ravioli” stuffed with ground beef, pork or chicken or Ukranian vareniki ($4.50 to $5) stuffed with potato or cabbage. Both come with Irina’s homemade sour cream, which can also be purchased separately to enjoy at home. Fresh feta cheese, cottage cheese, and frozen dumplings are also available.
Consider planning ahead to sample some truly unique treats from Central Asia. From Uzbekistan, Irina’s brings the manti ($6.90 to $8.90), a steamed pork, lamb, or beef dumpling, or a delicious plov ($20 to $25), a fried rice infused with meat and garlic flavours. Both require ordering two hours ahead. If you’re craving meat but fail to plan ahead, there’s always beef stroganoff ($7.90) or Central Asian kebabs ($5.90) as a consolation price.
And then there’s the vodka ($3-$5 for 100ml). Served in 100g carafes, it’s meant to be sipped, not gulped in a single shot, while eating. “My mum, she used to have only one type of vodka, but now we have four types. Sometimes we bring it from Russia so our customers can try exquisite ones,” says Sok.
Drinking like a “real Russian” requires always eating with your alcohol, lest you get too drunk. “You’ll always see Russians drinking vodka surrounded with plates of food,” she says.
If vodka sounds like too much, Sok mixes a softer cocktail blending it with cranberry juice – “for the ladies” – that can be drank straight or on ice. It’s certainly easier on the palette, and a delicious combination.