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A Culinary Tour of Moscow

The days of the oligarchs may be numbered, but Russia’s bling-crazy capital is still home to some of the country’s best restaurants.

By Anya von Bremzen

Barely 24 hours in Moscow and I’ve already ingested a year’s worth of foie gras at a glitzy fashion reception, nearly gotten trampled at the Revolution Square metro station, and been insulted by bus drivers and dill-hawking babushkas because I don’t radiate the finger-snapping imperiousness demanded by the world’s brashest capital. Oddly, I find all the rudeness endearing. I feel like I’m home again, back in the U.S.S.R. of my childhood.

“Forget politesse—Muscovites respect only power,” instructs my old friend J. He and I are reconnecting over flaky pirozhki and almond croissants at Konditerskaya Pushkin, a neo-Baroque pastry annex of the ever-popular Café Pushkin. Once a pillar of the scruffy Moscow intelligentsia, J. is now a contemporary-art czar. He shares plans for a sculpture show on the roof of the FSB (ex-KGB) headquarters. “Imagine the hype!” he chuckles. He describes his fondness for restaurants like Semifreddo, an oligarch’s dining club with $50 scampi carpaccios. “And soul?Redemption?” I tease. My Dostoyevskian mockery hits a nerve. “Aah, what’s become of us?” J. wonders, darkening. Hmm, interesting question.

The Moscow I grew up in during the stagnation of the Brezhnev era had no oligarchs or almond croissants—only soul and stale sausage. Now, back on one of my regular visits from New York, with my mother and boyfriend in tow, I’m even more bewildered than usual. Glamurno is the new most popular word in the Russian vocabulary, and this defiant profligacy seems unabated by recent tumbles. Faded old mansions have become garish replicas of their old selves—complete with two-Bentley garages. “It’s like Dubai with Pushkin statues,” exclaims my boyfriend, Barry, here for the first time. “A strange carnival,” adds my mother, who left 30 years ago. We pass a Maserati showroom near a house where we once lived—nine families sharing one bathroom in a ghastly communal apartment. “Nobody seems to remember the deprivations!” Mom laments.

Me, I don’t have time to regret collective oblivions. I’m too busy digesting Moscow’s booming restaurant scene. London minimalism, Romanov pomp, Tokyo appropriation, Cossack kitsch—it’s all here somewhere in a city that never stops eating, krizis or no krizis. You can even have a delicious arugula salad while gazing out at Lenin’s mausoleum and St. Basil’s candy-colored domes—as we do one lunchtime at Bosco Bar. Every tourist trap should be like Bosco Bar (adjacent to the expensive Bosco Café), with its prime Red Square tables and surprisingly elegant pastas and salads served alongside Russian classics. While Mom moons over the soulful dacha-style fried potatoes with mushrooms and Barry ponders the Kremlin, I scan the Russian food press. Apparently, this season’s hot story is about Moscow’s new embrace of domestic ingredients, which doesn’t sound like a story—until you notice that here, in one of the world’s richest agricultural countries, even the onions in the supermarkets are imported from Holland. Curious, I call my friend Igor, owner of two popular restaurants. “I get my ingredients mainly from France,” he admits. Local farmers produce excellent stuff, he explains, but most of it bottlenecks in the bureaucracy. Bribe-loving lawmakers create endless obstacles. “I’m always feeding political bigwigs,” says Igor, “and I tell them, ‘Stay out of our business, so we can feed you better!’ ”

Perhaps there’s hope. Russia’s current food fights echo the Westernizers-versus-Slavophiles debates of the mid 19th century. The most recent wave of Westernizers has hooked Muscovites on Ibérico ham and burrata. Shunning Cyrillic, it has spawned restaurants named Suzy Wong Bar or Cherry Mio. But Slavophiles are fighting back. The unlikely leader of this return to the soil is molecular-minded chef Anatoly Komm, darling of European avant-garde food circles. Not only does Komm deconstruct borscht and herring into capsules and gels at his new restaurant, Varvary, but he does so using exclusively Russian products, nurturing regional growers. Perhaps because of this, dinner at Varvary costs a golden arm and a leg. So, instead we head to the self-service Stolovaya No. 57, Moscow’s other new homegrown hot spot.

No gels or foams here at this doting replica of a Communist-era stolovaya (workers’ canteen) within the ritzy GUM department store. Just smoky pea soup, oladyi (small, lacy blini) fried in rich Vologda butter, and cleanly rendered herring under a fur coat (a.k.a. beet salad), that sine qua non of a proletarian repast, served on grayish stolovaya-issue dishware. Mom’s almost in tears at the archival respect for the past. The golden schnitzels and rosy franks look like their Technicolor photos in the Book of Healthy and Tasty Cuisine, a beloved Stalin-era kitchen bible. Long lines at the cashier add authenticity. Everyone’s here: Kremlin staffers and slinky GUM salesgirls, a millionaire and his bodyguard, all clearing their own dishes, nostalgic for the days of the “classless society.” Apparently, Muscovites do remember. But here’s the irony: this simulacrum of the Homo sovieticus dining experience was created by a multinational luxury brand, Bosco di Ciliegi, owners of Bosco Bar.

I forgive Moscow restaurants their theme-parkishness. After all, it was less than 20 years ago that a dining-out culture re-emerged from long decades of Socialist shortages. A Soviet restoran was a place where thugs groped peroxided blondes while a band blasted. When privately owned restaurants first started popping up in the late 1980’s, most Soviets were still pickling their own cabbage and brewing samogon (moonshine) using cheapo candies, because even sugar was scarce. Food critics date a Western-style dining scene to the 1992 opening of Sirena by restaurant über-impresario Arkady Novikov. After introducing the civilized pleasures of oysters on ice, Novikov rose to become Moscow’s ruling restaurateur, a coolmeister with infinite influence and some four dozen establishments—all hyper-professional—in his $40 million portfolio. New Moscow’s current adulation of London-style sleekness?Blame Novikov. That omnipresent menu mix of carpaccios and sushi, foie gras on brioche, and black bread with herring?Novikov again.

Wherever the coolmeister goes, the jeunesse dorée follows. Tonight, everyone’s having spicy tuna rolls, tandoori duck, and stupendous Kamchatka crab—the new “it” comestible—prepared with great skill and Asian flair at Novikov’s Nedalny Vostok. Young dudes in Roberto Cavalli velvets and animal prints actually blend into the décor, a postmodern tour de force of mixed textures and surfaces created by Super Potato, the cult Japanese design firm. Industrialists’ daughters cluster together pouting over their green teas—worried, perhaps, about their dads’ petro-fortunes. “Oligarchs?They’re nanogarchs now!” hoots the gypsy-cab driver we flag down to get home. Then he blames us—Americans—for Russia’s financial collapse.

We get blamed again the next day—by a manager showing us around the eye-popping Turandot restaurant. This grandiose folly was erected by Novikov’s archrival, Andrey Dellos, who owns Café Pushkin up the street. “A slap in the face of the minimalism-loving elite!” is how Dellos, a former artist, describes his brand of unrestrained luxury. Turandot is his masterpiece of Rococo on steroids: an invented 18th-century palace crammed with chinoiserie, frescoes, and damask that took 500 artisans, six years, and a reported $50 million to create. “Shame on you, money-obsessed American press, always writing about what Mr. Dellos spent,” rebukes the manager. “Who can put a price on cultural patrimony?” In a semicircular chamber under a sky-blue dome we play Marie Antoinette as comrades in powdered wigs serve us fusiony fare inspired by London’s Hakkasan. The fanciful dim sum, the crispy duck salad ringed by a wreath of greens, the venison pirozhki with black-pepper–and-oyster sauce—all are tasty, as they should be at these prices. Barry reports that the urinals in the men’s room are made of delft porcelain.

After lunch he and I are off to the All-Russia Exhibition Center, my favorite Moscow spot. Mom, an old dissident, passes on this vast Socialist Realist wonderland built in 1939 to glorify collectivization. The propaganda-kitsch sprawl of Stalinist pavilions now houses vendors of souvenirs. As a kid I adored the Friendship of Nations fountain: a gilded lollapalooza of collective farm maidens in the national garbs of the 15 erstwhile Soviet republics encircling a gigantic bundle of wheat. “Where’s that colonialist agrarian fantasy now?” Barry quips. “Russia’s cutting off Ukraine’s gas…hammering Georgia.” Suddenly I’m overcome with a childish desire to turn back the clock with a spin through the kitchens of the former republics.

Our first stop, Barashka, is Azerbaijan as imagined by Novikov. The smart, understated design is more Belgravia than Baku, but the vibrant cuisine—related to that of Persia—would do an Azeri grandmother proud. Mom’s back on board as we sip sage tea from cut-crystal glasses and try succulent Caspian sturgeon kebabs and herbaceous lamb stews spooned onto aromatic basmati-rice pilafs. Farther up Novy Arbat, a Khrushchev-era grand boulevard, Georgia is represented by a cavernous restaurant called Genatsvale Arbat, where the kitchen spins out its own spicy regional feast. Khachapuri pies ooze pungent cheese; knotted khinkali dumplings squirt peppery meat juices into our mouths; chicken satsivi is cloaked in a complex walnut sauce tinted yellow with marigold petals. “Remember how Georgia was our Sicily?” Mom reminisces—a land of sun, citrus, inky wines, and epic corruption. I ask for Georgian wine. “My beauty,” the waiter snorts, “you forget about Moscow’s embargo on Georgian exports?”

Next day, it’s Ukraine’s turn. We eat more dumplings (this time, the flat, slithery, sour-cherry vareniki) at Shinok, a faux-farmhouse extravaganza. Animals wander a glass-enclosed courtyard while waitresses in embroidered blouses deliver folkloric earthenware pots of robust meaty borscht, smoked suckling pig, and dense slices of freshly baked rye bread draped with snow-white petals of that wholesomely Ukrainian treat: cured lard. Hog-happy, we keep it Ukrainian the following day at Taras Bulba Korchma. At this raucous, democratically priced Cossack-themed chain, the food may lack the finesse of Shinok, but the garlic-studded cold pork, sour-creamed braised rabbit, and porcini caps pickled with black-currant leaf are just right with the horseradish-infused vodka. When we befriend a gaggle of traffic cops here celebrating someone’s promotion, the convivial policemen draw us a little chart of how much of a bribe each moving violation requires. Then they propose an archaic U.S.S.R. toast. Which is how we end up drinking—and drinking and drinking—to the friendship of nations.