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.