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A Culinary Tour of Moscow

200905-a-journal-moscow

Photo: Christian Kerber

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.

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