Friday night at Café Pushkin. At the next table, a man in platinum cuff links and an expensive suit leans over his borscht to gesticulate at his companion, explaining the arcane details of some fabulous deal. There is the tinkle of ice. Discreet flash of jewels. Friends stop by to shake his hand; a young woman—cheekbones that could cut glass, Birkin bag under her arm—kisses his cheeks three times. Other customers glance in his direction, then return to their blini with caviar.
The Pushkin is Moscow's Balthazar, its Ivy. The restaurant occupies three floors (with a roof garden in summer) of what appears to be a 19th-century town house once owned by a wealthy man of letters, but which was actually built in the 1990's. It's the perfect stage-set for the new Moscow: the Moscow of cool, the Moscow of fusion cooking and good jazz and ice discos in Gorky Park, a Moscow that wallows nostalgically in its pre-Soviet past but loves its neo-capitalist pleasures.
"You remember the fairy tale about the beautiful princess who kissed the frog and turned it back into the handsome prince?" asks Vladimir Pozner, a Russian TV journalist. "Well, this is where the capitalist princess kissed the Soviet frog and turned it into a ravishing city...with warts, of course," adds Pozner, taking a sip of good Bordeaux at the Pushkin.
It's been a decade since Communism folded, and this is a city that's only a decade old. Some people here have lived through the beginning and end of an entire empire. Moscow is brazen and vital, a tough, in-your-face town with something for everyone: great restaurants, casinos lit up like the Klondike in gold rush times, the best-dressed women on earth. Even with restaurants and clubs springing up every few months—I barely recognize the place from a few years back—there is no new Moscow without the old; no conversation about it without comparisons, how it is now, how it was then.
"Hard to believe we're talking about the same city," Pozner says. "Moscow used to be drab, dull, stifled by ideology. The food was awful, the service nonexistent, the hotels substandard. A damp blanket of fear hung over everything."
Pozner, who speaks English like a native New Yorker, is my guide and friend. He has lived here for almost 50 years (though he was born in Paris and raised in New York), and I met him on my first trip to Moscow, in 1988. Those were gray times, when the choices for dinner were limited to the hotel—where nothing on the menu was available—or the grim restaurant Prague (where I once bought a jar of black-market caviar off a waiter for seven bucks—they used to keep a supply of it in their pockets).