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Dining out in Moscow


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Moscow is not high on the list of places most of us would consider for good food, except perhaps for caviar. And it is far from a pleasant environment. The newly refurbished airport at Domodedovo (DME) is brighter, cleaner and easier to navigate than dark old Sheremetyevo (SVO) but you are still confronted with the "Moscow smell" as you leave the aircraft: smoke, chemicals and a distinctly lavatorial aroma. It fades after awhile as you grow accustomed to it, but it seems to cover the entire area. Old Moscow hands say that they have simply stopped counting the automobile accidents they encounter both in town and on the surrounding motorways, since realising the extent of the daily carnage on the roads would be too depressing. And the protocols for immigration and security are still daunting: expensive visas, long, complex forms to fill in, grim agents in cubicles that let them see you but give you little more of a view than their faces. Your details are registered with the police as you move from one hotel to another.

Service, overall, is still highly uneven: in the better hotels, it is extremely accommodating, but it can break down quickly. You must think ahead about how to get from one point to another; you cannot assume that taxis, for example, will be easily available, or roadworthy when you find them, or that the driver will be able to communicate with you or even know the location of major buildings in Moscow.

Nonetheless, Moscow offers a fair number of consolations. Much of the architecture is breathtaking. The Muscovites I have met have been highly intelligent and friendly. And it has some lovely restaurants. My recent travel there has allowed for some delicious food.

Cafe Pushkin, Tverskoy Bulvar 26 (tel 229 5590) looks as though it is at least 200 years old; the exterior and interior have a wonderful and mysterious atmosphere, as though you have entered into an old Russian mansion, complete with ancient books, high ceilings and the like. A distinguished and literary-looking gentleman, no doubt a descendant of Pushkin's, with flowing white hair and a white beard, greets guests as they arrive and leave.

Finding a table in Cafe Pushkin is no mean feat. It is not difficult to book (though you are well advised to do so) but there are multiple dining rooms -- the library, the roof garden, the salon, etc. -- and the process of getting you from the elegant reception area and bar to your table is not straightforward. On our first visit, we were shown to a pleasant table in a bright sitting room with high windows. Then a young man at a table across the room lit a pipe, filling the room with a sweet, aromatic smoke, as though someone was burning a stack of bubblegum. We asked to move. The waiter spoke on his mobile phone, and we were shown to a table in "the library", this time a darker room, surrounded by bookshelves.

Our second visit was with a friend who doesn't plan far ahead in his life, but is blessed with the sort of luck that sees everything fall into place, whether in New York, Afghanistan or Africa. Had he booked? we asked, as we entered. "No," he said, "but it won't be a problem to find a table." The bar area was filled, every table was filled, and we started to think about other places to dine. But our friend whispered to the receptionist, and we were sent to the bar for a drink. "In 10 minutes you may dine on our rooftop terrace," said the maitre d'hotel.

Ten minutes later we followed a waiter up three flights of stairs to the roof terrace. There was indeed a table for four, but another guest had installed himself at it and was determined not to leave. Mobile phone again. "I will take you to a beautiful table on our second floor," said the waiter. We followed him down. But there were no tables. The waiter started to tell us about the history of the place. As almost everyone in Moscow seems to know, it is all a simulacrum. The Cafe is completely new and was built, from the ground up, in the late 1990s: Disneyland in Moscow. The literary atmosphere is a complete fake, a Potemkin village for tourists seeking authentic Olde Russia.

The waiter dashed away again and quickly returned. "Now I will tell you about the books and antiques. They are real." He took us to see a collection of antique clocks and some very old books, including the oldest in the restaurant's collection, a 15th century liturgy. We waited; we examined books and clocks. Still no table. Finally, one opened up, and we were seated.

The menu in the Cafe is long and complex, a combination of French and Russian dishes, with a range of soups, hors d'oeuvres, large starters, and so on. Cucumbers are offered "demi-sel" (half salted) and fully salted. Pelmeni (pies) are offered with six different fillings including "abats de volaille" (chicken giblets) and calf brains. On one evening, I had a starter of smoked eels with seaweed and caviar; on a second, bortsch. Sterlet (young sturgeon) was perfectly cooked and served with a saffron sauce. And the "dessert of the Cafe Pushkin", one amongst many offerings, is a wondrous combination of dark chocolate and frozen berries and cream; we divided it amongst four.

A distinguished and literary-looking gentleman, with flowing white hair and a white beard, also greeted us as we entered Sirena, Ulitsa Bolshaya Spasskaya 15 (tel 208 1412) I looked again to see whether the same man had popped over from the Cafe Pushkin, but this one was different. Perhaps this is the look of a Moscow restaurateur.

Sirena is a fish restaurant. As if to remind us of this, we were seated in the "aquarium" room. The floor is glass; below it is an enormous fish tank, with sturgeon and carp swimming underfoot. The journey from the door to the table was vertiginous, but once seated the effect is pleasant. The menu is shorter, with few concessions to non-fish eaters. "Stuffed carp, Jewish style" was not the French carpe à la juive but rather a superb rendition of gefilte fisch, served with appropriate garnishes. As a main, I had turbot, in a light saffron-tinged sauce with red caviar. There were three lightly smoked scallops atop the turbot, which was fresh and beautifully prepared.

Before dessert we were served a small glass of what was called "sorbet" but was in fact a sort of delicious sour cherry purée; it was so good that we asked for another round. For dessert I had vareniki, tender "ravioli" filled with cherries and served warm, with sour cream. We drank a bottle of near-frozen Russian Standard "Platinum" vodka with this dinner; it went down very easily. The entire meal was superb.

To end the week on a fishy note, we dined at Old Tokyo Ulitsa Petrovka 30/7 (tel 209 3786). Here you have the conundrum of a large and long menu with Japanese names in handwritten Cyrillic script. I was able to decipher a few of the names; fortunately, the menu includes a photograph of every dish. The sushi here were fresh, tasty and well cut, especially the rolls -- I had a particularly good smoked eel and avocado roll, surrounded by red fish eggs.

Practicalities: most restaurants in Moscow accept credit cards, but, except under the table, you cannot pay in cash other than roubles. Prices are expressed in "units", which are then translated into roubles at the prevailing exchange rate. Prices at good Moscow restaurants are high -- at least at London levels, perhaps more.

Central Moscow is compact and not difficult to get around, and the Metro functions very well, though its maps lack the clarity of the London or Paris systems. Arm yourself with a good map and learn the Cyrillic alphabet, since street signs and metro stops are only printed in Cyrillic. Asking prices for taxis are very high, e.g. US$40 for a short journey, but can usually be negotiated.

Edited by Jonathan Day (log)

Jonathan Day

"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

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Pelmeni are pies? I thought they were dumplings. At least, that's how the word is used at Russian restaurants in New York City. I wonder if they are conceptually similar enough to fall under the same vocabulary umbrella. Jonathan, have you been to any of the better NYC Russian restaurants (Firebird, or the former Russian Tea Room post-renovation) and if so, how do they compare to Moscow?

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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These were described as pelmeni, and they were unquestionably pies: pastry, filled with various meat preparations, and baked.

I am no expert at Russian cuisine, but have dined at the Russian Tea Room before it closed (that meal was not very good), and have dined at Russian restaurants in the UK and France. My impression was that the Moscow restaurants were more confident about going a bit "off piste", playing with traditional recipes and varying the dishes a bit. The bortsch at Cafe Pushkin, for example, had smoked goose in it.

Edited by Jonathan Day (log)

Jonathan Day

"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

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Jonathan, thank you so much for your report. I’ve been curious about the gastronomic developments in my motherland for quite some time, but wasn’t convinced enough that it was time for a visit. In fact, Tony Bourdain’s miserable adventures in St. Petersburg convinced me that it wasn’t, though I had some suspicions that the food had to be better in Moscow.

Oh that “Moscow smell,” with smoke so intense that the only antidote to its perfume was to drown into ones own cloud of cigarette smoke, or that “distinctly lavatorial aroma” (you did make me laugh) to which one (and I must respectfully disagree with you on this account) can never get accustomed.

The architecture is beautiful indeed, but St. Petersburg is my favorite in that regard.

I left Russia at a time when knowledge about turbot and its taste was accessible only through third-party experience, that is, primarily through the documentation of its taste in the classical literature. For instance, reading about Oblonsky’s turbot with sauce Beaumarchais and capons a l'estragon in Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” was quite inspiring. One of the common expressions at my time was: “Let’s talk about shrimps with those who ate them” which sadly became colloquial and was applied in general terms.

As private entrepreneurship became possible and the iron curtain separating Russia from the rest of the world was lifted, many people managed to accumulate great wealth and set foot outside of their own country‘s borders, bringing back more refined tastes and demands and forcing culinary revival on their old country. In fact, a friend of mine just came back from Japan and mentioned that to his surprise he saw many stores and even restaurants with Russian translations, indicating that Russian tourism in Japan has grown dramatically. Therefore, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that a culinary revival is currently developing and penetrating the Russian market. I don’t think there is anything to export just yet, but it is nice to hear that Russian cuisine has started taking the first next steps in its evolution.

Edited by lxt (log)
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These were described as pelmeni, and they were unquestionably pies: pastry, filled with various meat preparations, and baked.

Jonathan, pelmeni traditionally are dumplings stuffed with minced meat and boiled in water or soup. The only variation pertains to a different stuffing. Pirogi, on the other hand, have a pastry wrapping and are usually stuffed with meat, cheese, seafood, sautéed sour cabbage or mushrooms and baked. I can only conclude that the menu had an error in its description as there is no other connotation for pelmeni, at least not one of which I am aware.

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I often see Russian tourists on the Cote d'Azur these days -- the new wealth of the "oligarchs" re-creating the tourism habits of the former Russian aristocracy.

It is possible that fatigue and alcohol left me with a confused memory of the Cafe Pushkin menu. I did have dumplings as a main course at my first meal there -- and they were boiled, and filled with meat, and served with a delicious sour cream sauce. I am almost sure that the pies were described, in English, as "pelmeni". But in that case, how were the dumplings described? My colleagues and I had resolved to avoid the Cafe Pushkin on future trips, not because it was bad but because we wanted to try new places. Now I have to persuade them to return -- or I will have to dash over from the hotel to inspect the menu. Duty calls.

I find that I become accustomed to the "Moscow smell" in the same way as a low-grade toothache or backache, or a night in a hotel room where previous occupants have been heavy smokers. It's always there, but I manage to push it to one side of my awareness. But what a sense of freshness on returning to London -- and any atmosphere that can make London air seem fresh must be foul indeed.

Jonathan Day

"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

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I often see Russian tourists on the Cote d'Azur these days -- the new wealth of the "oligarchs" re-creating the tourism habits of the former Russian aristocracy.

The same is said about Nice (a place favored by Russians for centuries as documented by our literary scholars). Considering that the bureaucracy is still flourishing in Russia and that in order to get things done one must employ a tremendous amount of energy directed toward bribery and cheating and at times requires an association with certain criminal elements, I would be reluctant in applying the term “Russian aristocracy” to the current wave of New Russians who managed to accumulate great wealth. However, their children may well be that foundation as many of them conquer Oxford and Sorbonne and are exposed to the world’s culture and best manners. The Russian aristocracy as we knew it (highly educated, well mannered and honorable) was almost fully eradicated after the insanity of the Revolution. The ones who survived became a foundation of Russian intelligentsia dwelling in poverty. I don’t think that the situation has changed much, though I may be wrong. I would be inclined to compare the current situation in Russia to the Prohibition times in America when the children of gangsters, secured by the money of their parents, moved up society's ladder afterwards.

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  • 3 years later...

As a way of introducing myself as the new Host of "Elsewhere in Europe" let me summarize an article that appeared last week in the IHT by Sophia Kishkovsky. The author suggests that several expensive restos in Moscow are establishing much cheaper (eg 200 vs 7000 ruble) but quite tasty offshoots that include:

a cafeteria set-up group of Gabli's by the owner of Nostalgie

a buffet type Yolki-Palki by that from Tsarskaya Okhota

the budget chain Moo-Moo by the owner of the Cafe Pushkin

desserts at Vokzal

the Caucasusian-food-serving chain Shesh-Besh and

casinos with restos such as the New York Casino's Manhattan Grill.

John Talbott

blog John Talbott's Paris

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  • 2 months later...
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The April 5-6 WSJ has an article (not on the web unfortunately but sometimes these things are searchable eventually) by Gregory White on "Moscow Goes Molecular" mentioning Vavary as well as Expeditisiya, Maison Baccarat, The Most, Cafe Pushkin, GQ Bar + The Apartment.

John Talbott

blog John Talbott's Paris

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  • 8 months later...

Am in Moscow in Feb, anyone got any solid restaurant recommendations?

Edited by adey73 (log)

“Do you not find that bacon, sausage, egg, chips, black pudding, beans, mushrooms, tomatoes, fried bread and a cup of tea; is a meal in itself really?” Hovis Presley.

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Am in Moscow in Feb, anyone got any solid restaurant recommendations?

I have no suggestions, but will be very interested in what you find.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

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