On the drive up Highway 1 along the Sonoma County coast, the road eventually begins to twist and turn and the landscape grows ever craggier, dotted with wind-battered homes. In the coastal hamlet of Jenner, about 80 miles north of San Francisco at the mouth of the Russian River, a quaint, shingled building with a sign that says “Russian House #1” is perched along the road. Is it a restaurant? A community center? An experiment in spiritual development?
Yes is the answer.
Russian House #1 has no menu and no set prices for food. Its founders, Tatiana Ginzburg and Polina Krasikova, were inspired in part by their experience at Burning Man in 2014, where they witnessed an intricate barter economy in action. The restaurant also has no paid kitchen staff. Krasikova cooks most of the food and is chiefly responsible for the kitchen, though she relies on a revolving cast of volunteers. Some are neighbors. The owners do not use the word donation. “It’s not charity,” Krasikova says. You pay according to your own sense of fairness. Some visitors pay with labor, staying to clean or chop vegetables.
In Russian House’s five-year history, Krasikova and Ginzburg have welcomed friends from all over the world, so the day’s flavors are liable to change depending on who’s in the kitchen. They’ve hosted French, Italian, Chinese, Turkish, Indian, and Armenian friends. “They cook whatever they want,” she says.
Sonoma County may seem like an unlikely place to pass a sign reading “Pirozhki to go,” but Russian House is ten miles from Fort Ross, a rustic Russian outpost where fur traders settled in the nineteenth century. The compound is now a National Historic Landmark that draws visiting Russians and other tourists passing along this picturesque stretch of California’s coast.
The bright, windowed space inside Russian House has a grand quality, owing largely to the majestic view of the Russian River, where geese frolic. And though visitors are likely to get a good meal, Krasikova admits that eating is not the whole point here. “The food, however good it is, is secondary to dialogue and communication. That’s what we want. People come for food and stay for something else.”
That “something else” is hard to pin down: The place hosts philosophy and physics lectures and holotropic breathwork workshops, and a poster made by Ginzburg starkly lays out steps toward unleashing human potential. It’s a sensibility that seems to combine 19th century Russian mysticism, a Soviet penchant for grandiose acts of bureaucratic classification, and a post-Soviet interest in New Age self-discovery. But the extra-culinary offerings can feel opaque, even to visitors well versed in West Coast wellness culture. One would have to really join the community to ascertain whether it delivers on its self-stated goal of “global enlightenment.”
That said, a spirit of playfulness is alive throughout the space, where complex wooden puzzles hang along the wall of a corner pantry designed to look like an old-fashioned Russian stove. Matrioshki — Russian nesting dolls — of various sizes and a miniature balalaika stand sentinel on a shelf above a poster featuring an 80s-style image of a matrix that says “Meaning.” Binders full of flyers for past events and one-day menus sit on a table near the entryway. The papers reflect the wit and humor that undergirds the Russian House project as well as a charmingly faltering grasp of English. “Classical Piano Concert is Quite Possible” reads one. An old menu for the “Week of Consciousness Expansion” lists food for the intellect (riddles and puzzles) as well as “earth food” (the actual buffet). Another from a past Labor Day lists prices for activities: “the right to clean the floor in the kitchen” costs $1; “the right to bake one pirozhek” costs $5; and doing a puzzle with Tatiana would run guests $10,000.
When guests arrive, they take a plate from the mismatched stacks below the table and serve themselves from a motley assortment of chafing dishes and ceramic bowls. A large insulated pot of steaming ukha — Russian fish soup — beckons as an obvious first course. The clear broth, flecked with dill, maintains its lightness in spite of large chunks of potato and cod.
Though Krasikova draws on traditional recipes, she spent her St. Petersburg childhood cooking and baking alongside her mother, who liked to experiment, and she calls the food she serves “fusion.” “We get tired of cooking all the same all the time,” she says, “so we always experiment.” She enjoys using seasonal vegetables and playing with ayurvedic spice combinations. Krasikova sometimes looks up classic Russian recipes from one of the vintage cookbooks she keeps on a bookshelf off the main room, but adds touches she thinks Californians will appreciate.
For example, when she realized guests didn’t love plain kasha (or buckwheat groats, a staple grain dish in Russian cuisine), she added capers and seaweed. Instead of typical blini with buckwheat flour, she uses almond milk to make a lighter, crepe-like version. The resulting pancakes have an injera-like sponginess, and are delicious served lukewarm with a dollop of cold sour cream and a spoonful of raspberry jam. A tart cabbage-and-carrot sauerkraut (made by a neighbor) cut both the blandness of a medley of stewed vegetables and the richness of a braised dish of pork medallions and greens that Krasikova conceded was not very Russian.
Taken together, however, the meal felt Russian: heavy as a woolen blanket, warm, comforting, and filling. It was served with Ivan tea (made from fermented fireweed), an erstwhile export of the Russian empire, in delicate cups from St. Petersburg’s Imperial Porcelain Factory. Krasikova refilled the cups as soon as they were emptied.
In a moment when Russian political intrigue dominates the news, it can feel quite radical — and nourishing — to spend a few sunny hours soaking in a spirit of Russian joy. That rare experience is what’s on offer at Russian House #1, even if it isn’t exactly for sale.