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Moscow's Moment

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Photo: Andrea Fazzari

What differentiates Krysha from Moscow's myriad white-hot commercial nightspots is that it is positioning itself as the antidote. Its symbol is three red dots inside a circle—the logo of painter Nicholas Roerich, who formed a kind of cult around himself at the turn of the last century. "We chose it because we'd rather push people in eclectic spiritual directions," Korolev tells me. "We didn't have any counterculture revolution in the sixties, because our country was closed. So we're having one now." Moscow's counterculture has distilled its meaning down, past bra-burning and communal living, to the idea of creating something for a purpose other than to sell it for as much profit as possible. In Korolev's case, that means a venue for music he believes in, where not every Exxon expat with $1,000 in his pocket is granted instant access.

And as Dymov has demonstrated with Respublika, a maximum profit margin isn't the only litmus test for success anymore; authentic local atmosphere is one, too. Simple Things, a year-old café owned by Moscow food maven Katya Drozdova, is the capital's first venue to combine peasant cooking with a gourmet sensibility—inspired by Alice Waters, whom Drozdova met at a Slow Food festival in Italy. From the tacked-up illustrations in the bathrooms to the strawberry gardens on the restaurant's deep windowsills, Simple Things has a wabi-sabi warmth and personality lacking almost everyplace else. "We're the only restaurant I know that doesn't have financial backing or invisible people controlling us," she says. Among other challenges, she's had to contend with a problem she thought had faded away with the wild 90's: extortion by the local mafia. "I didn't realize such things happened anymore!"

Drozdova has an impressive résumé in the city's food industry. She has edited a trade magazine for chefs; worked as head of public relations for the empire of Arkady Novikov, the city's biggest luxury restaurateur; and is still involved in PR and organizing various festivals. With Simple Things, she has tried to create "a Russian version of that small, casual, cool place that everybody finds when they go abroad. You don't need to dress up or behave like anyone but yourself when you come here." Funky Cyrillic text on the storefront welcomes and exhorts simple things—what a wild idea! and eat—don't be shy! The wine list is brief but impressive, whiskeys get their own shelf, and cocktails are made from fresh dacha strawberries with apples and champagne or vodka and wild-blackberry nectar. Dishes are resolutely basic, like cinnamon-roasted spring chicken, leg of lamb, and cucumber soup, or else traditional Russian plates, such as okroshka, a cold soup made from the fermented-bread drink called kvass.

While these entrepreneurs are following their muses, rather than wringing their hands over who's at the top of the list for next season's Balenciaga bag, most of them concede that a visit to Moscow wouldn't be complete without a small dose of the city's outsized glamour. Drozdova recommends dinner at one of the restaurants owned by Arkady Novikov, her old boss, for elaborate décor, Russian celebrities and, increasingly, fantastic eating. Novikov, a scene maker who owns a massive chunk of Moscow's food-related enterprises—upmarket, downmarket, produce in the supermarket—has even won a contract recently to supply Moscow's public schools. His latest venture, Nedalny Vostok ("the Near East") has an Asian-fusion menu that doesn't forget it's in Russia—as if Jean-Georges Vongerichten took a detour into the steppes and picked up a few new tricks. Straganina, for example, is sashimi in the Siberian manner: shaved curls of fish kissed by frost and served with lime, salt, and white pepper. The ultimate enclave-of-the-rich experience is Novikov-owned Prichal, a lofty open-air pavilion set on the bend of a slow green river about a 40-minute drive outside the city, along the Rublevo-Uspenskoe Shosse, one of the most exclusive addresses on earth. The patrons, Loro Piana sweaters thrown casually over their shoulders, dine on sorrel soup and sea bass in parchment while chauffeurs cluster, smoking, among the Beamers and Bentleys and Mercedeses in the parking lot. And if the stories that some of those drivers could relay of their employers' doings in the early 90's are probably better left untold—well, in Moscow, in 2007, everyone's ready to move on anyway.

Valerie Stivers-Isakova's first novel, Blood is the New Black, was published by Three Rivers/Crown in September.

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