The One With Balalaika – A Russian Experience At Knutsford Terrace

It’s someone’s birthday. Someone special. So of course you can’t do a half-hearted at (God forbid) char chan teng or just order a cake, can you. You need to do something different.

So what do you do? Here’s my three-steps fail-proof guide to choose an appropriate restaurant for a birthday dinner:
Step 1: Get a globe. Give it a good twirl, close your eyes, and jab with your finger.
Step 2: Look at the country, go to OpenRice.com to search for a corresponding restaurant (i.e. if you jabbed at Mongolia, you go for Mongolian food, see?)
Step 3: Call up the restaurant, make a reservation and start saving

Inevitably an exotic meal will cost you an arm and a leg, though I have to say that perhaps Balalaika Russian Restaurant is one of the few exceptions.

The Ice Bar

The Ice Bar

A visit to Balalaika would be incomplete without visiting the Ice Bar (the inverted Absolute Vodka prop wasn’t a photoshop mistake, mind you). The small bar without seats, which can comfortably fit about 6 – 7 standing adults, was famous for the subterranean chill of almost zero degrees Celcius, probably all to make it a Russian experience (side note: do you know the Russians have one of the most severe winters in the world?). Prior entering the chilled room you get to choose a huge fur coat, a fur cap and a pair of furry ear muffs.

If you think the ear muffs were a tad overkill, just try staying in the room for five minutes without it, and then allow me to pinch your ears. I guarantee you that you won’t feel a thing.

The Ice Bar Menu

You can place your order for an alcohol of choice before torturing yourself to the extreme temperature. Of course, being the ever traditionalist, I voted for some authentic vodka shots (~HK$42 per shot) as well as some fruit-flavoured vodka shots (~HK$40 per shot). The feeling of the warm vodka rushing through your cold body is something to be experienced on your own. Even if you do not want to dine here, The Ice Bar is definitely worth a visit.

And now on to the food.

Assorted meat platter with pickled vegetables (~ HK$80)

Assorted meat platter with pickled vegetables

For some reasons some of our dishes arrived before we returned to our table after visiting The Ice Bar. You would have thought the staff would stagger the food delivery. As such some of my dishes were not as warm as I would like it to be.

We started off with this disappointing platter of an appetizer. There were little meat to speak about; a few slices of ham, some dried (?) pepperoni, maybe some meat strips of unknown origin. The selection of pickled vegetables – like olives, red peppers, tomatoes – didn’t really add on to its appeal. I might not be an expert in exotic fine dining, but even to my green tongue I could tell this combination was in bad form.

Beef and Vegetables Pies (HK$15/pc)

Beef and Vegetables Pies

Apparently pies feature strongly on a Russian menu, and so we ordered a couple to try. Selection varies every night; we got vegetable and minced beef. The pastry was baked to a golden light brown and was quite warm to the bite, but the dough was too chewy. The filling was uninspiring; I couldn’t tell the vegetable pie to the minced beef. Okay, perhaps I exaggerated but again the combination didn’t make us go all aflutter over our virgin Russian-pie experience.

Borscht with oxtail (HK$55)

Borscht with oxtail

(Pardon the dark photo but it was really dim in the restaurant) Easily the best dish of the night, and one that I could actually say worth it. In most of countries, it is made with beetroot or countries tomato as the main ingredient. However I think the Borscht we had that night was of a non-beet variety. The soup was just too tangy, perhaps it was a tomato paste-based orange borscht instead.

We ordered only one portion and the wait staff had thoughtfully split it into two bowls, which made it just nice as an appetizer. The broth was rich and creamy, and the oxtail meat was tender. It was unlike any other Western soup which I have tried before, and I played it down to a Russian experience (well, it did sound like I was grasping at straw here). The soup saved the otherwise below-average Russian pies; we mopped up everything using the bread. Good till the last drop.

Lamb shoulder with vegetables & coriander (for 2 persons, HK$280)

Lamb shoulder with vegetables & coriander

First impression; the portion was HUGE. The waitress did try to help us to slice up the lamb shoulder but obviously she was no match to this slab of mutton muscle. So we did it ourselves. The meat, however, was rather chewy not because it isn’t fresh (it was) but I suspect the whole thing was a tad overcooked. The chef wasn’t generous with the gravy, so by the time we got to this dish, it kinda dried up. It was accompanied by some baked potatoes but they were largely untouched.

About the restaurant

So what’s so special about this shop? Apart from the deco (which I read somewhere that it is not as Russian as one would expect) and decidedly mediocre food, we were warmed by the hospitality of the Singing Russian Duo who played alternately on the piano and accordion and some percussion instruments. They were definitely the most Russian thing about Balalaika that I could attest to.

Here’s a funny story: That night, every single table in the restaurant were celebrating birthdays. So it did seem like each table took turn to have the cake-cutting and every single time, the Singing Russian Duo would hop over and sang (at top volume) the Happy Birthday in English and Russian. In between tables they entertained us with a string of Russian tunes (some of which I could recognise from my trombone-playing days), so the atmosphere was party-ish but too loud for conversations.

Kev's Birthday Dinner

The birthday boy and I were too embarrassed to take out our cake right there and then. We waited until every table has done with theirs and the singing pair was resting. I sneakily put the mini cakes I bought on the table (there wasn’t any additional charge for that), hoping the Singing Russion Duo would not notice but alas! They swooped down the minute I lighted the candle; though they did spare us by doing only half a rendition of the English song.

The Conclusion

Like I said, this seems to be a place for a birthday dinner but don’t expect to have much privacy or the right ambiance for decent, murmured conversation. It simply wasn’t that kind of place. The Ice Bar is definitely a must-visit, but I would skip the rest of the food.

Come to think of it, now I realised why the meal didn’t burn a whole in my pocket.

What I would order again? Borscht with oxtail
What I would never touch again? Assorted meat platter with pickled vegetables
Would I come again? There are many other Russian places around
Would I have dinner dates here? No, it was simply too noisy for anything intimate
Would I have dinner gathering here? Yes, the ice bar and the Russian Singing Duo will make it a good get-together spot!

Balalaika Russian Restaurant
2/F, 10 Knutsford Terrace, Tsim Sha Tsui
2312 6222


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