After two hours over two visits to the Russian Consulate, at least a dozen hours caring for the logistics and details of procuring a visa, and hundreds of dollars spent for the visa and the invitation necessary to receive the visa because…we do the same to Russians visiting the U.S…the chance finally arrived to set foot in Russia.
Very quickly after picking up luggage at the baggage claim, I realized mistake number one. Make sure you know the correct exchange rate (roughly 33 Rubles to 1 USD). The $3 USD to 100 Rubles ratio is easy to understand except when in a panic at an airport ATM machine. Let’s just say our initial 30 Rubles, when intended to be much more, didn’t last very long. Nearly every restaurant accepts major credit cards, but don’t for a moment think that the Moscow subway machines would accept them. The Moscow subway ticket receptionists will look at you with all the warmth of a porcupine when you ask about credit cards.
Surprisingly, many major tourist spots don’t accept credit cards either (yes, that is you The Kremlin, home of the Russian President). And of course, don’t even try to understand what the Cyrillic script on a credit card receipt says. At least numbers are universal. I think. I hope. The 1,000 should be Rubles, not Dollars, right?
While Russia has made many strides towards being a more modern, savvy nation in 2012, there are certainly elements of the country that still live in the past shadows. The lack of places where credit cards are not, but should be accepted is one. Your Iphone will struggle mightily at critical times when searching for directions. Russians still have not accepted the art of smiling yet. However, the biggest obstacle will be the language barrier. The fact is, they are not used to seeing many visitors from the U.S. and Western Europe. The visa policies make it challenging for us to visit. It is much rarer for the Russians to have the opportunity to visit our countries. English is not taught much in the Federation. With only a few English speaking visitors making the trip over here, there doesn’t seem to be the need to have signs, subway announcements, or even some menus translated, like is commonly done in China and Japan, where you’ll never be able to read the native language. The major restaurants and hotels will speak passable English. Still, exploration in a chaotic, massive metropolis like Moscow with a steep language barrier is a daunting task.
Thankfully and surprisingly, you will eat very well in Moscow if you do a little research and leave your hotel room. Fortunately a close friend of mine had just lived in the capital city for six months. Moscow is one of those cities where any corner you can cut will make life so much more pleasant when traveling. Having somebody “in the know” certainly is one of those perks because many of the restaurants and bars are not common knowledge. I gave the concierge at my highly ranked hotel the list of restaurants I was told to go to. She didn’t know a single one of them.
As the 5th most populated city in the world with a metropolitan population just shy of 12 million now, Moscow does have some characteristics on par with its world renowned peers. The Kremlin and its Armoury Museum are stunning. One can never tire of walking on Red Square and staring at St. Basil’s Cathedral, one of the great sights of the world. It’s the type of place where you take a hundred pictures because you can’t help it. There is world class visual art at the Tretyakov and Pushkin, a wonderful park in Gorky, two great rivers to jog or walk along, and of course, The Bolshoi, the world’s most powerful and famous ballet, recently re-opened after an extensive re-model. If you want some Soviet architecture, it doesn’t get more stunning (for better or worse) than the Stalin Seven Sisters behemoths. If you want luxury, the high end hotels and restaurants go over the top treating you like the Czar. Even certain intersections, such as Pushkinskaya, feature 21st century neon lights and T.V. screens à la Times Square and Ginza Crossing.
Moscow is a gigantic city. It makes Tokyo even seem compact. Nobody really understands this until trying to navigate around the city. Not only is the language barrier always an issue. Add in the distances and you get some real fun. Travel fatigue happens within about five minutes of arrival. If it weren’t for an incredibly kind man on the bus from the airport to the nearest metro stop (note to future participants, this should take roughly a half hour…), we may still be lost in who knows where Russia. Fortunately this gentleman who spoke essentially no English at least understood the word “metro” in English, which I understand is entirely different in Russian. Nobody else on the bus even looked my way when I asked about the metro.
Many of the side streets in Moscow are multiple lane boulevards and many of the boulevards are six lane, high speed Los Angeles freeways. Luckily there are entire underground cities for pedestrians to use as crosswalks under these streets.
Then there is that glorious metro. It’s a challenge to navigate without an English translation map. Yet, it is indeed incredibly efficient for traversing such far distances between stops. At rush hour, subways keep coming one after another as if they are an amusement park ride. At 6 pm, they will also be sardine cans like in Tokyo. The Russians are so demanding about not waiting for the metro that each station has a clock saying how long it has been since the previous departure. It will never be over three minutes. Yes, many of the stations are quite spectacular for their architecture. The metro cars…not so much. And those stations are truly deep down in the center of the earth. It takes a good five minutes just to ride the escalator from ground level down to a platform, the perfect time to catch up with a friend or glance at the newspaper you can’t understand.
With all of these wonders and distractions, you will be constantly wanting to relax and grab a glass of vodka, or have a blini with caviar. Many of the city’s top restaurants are actually run by commonly known chefs from around the world, such as Nobu Matsuhisa and Pierre Gagnaire. Varvary tends to lead the Michelin crop, of which there are only three starred establishments. Many of the recommended “destination” restaurants are simply the restaurants at luxury hotels. I can’t vouch for the Hotel Metropole’s cuisine, but the dining room is truly stunning and the espresso barely passable. Again, the doting service made me feel like a visiting prince.
For breakfast, a lemonade and some pancakes at I LOVE CAKE (yes, all in caps) is your stop.
Then for lunch and dinner, there is actually a trio of truly special dining experiences at shockingly affordable price points (it’s the luxury hotels and restaurants that deserve pricey Moscow reputation).
Pushkin is the address to keep in mind when looking for immaculate Russian cuisine. In an extravagantly elegant multi-story townhouse, the formal but approachable service will lead you to the right vodka, the shockingly not too heavy meat sampler with a noteworthy breaded chicken cutlet with cheese sauce (far better and intriguing than it sounds) and beef stroganoff (not actually a Russian dish, and the dessert that deserve their reputation, whether it’s the varenyky dumplings filled with cherry or the signature house “Cafe Pushkin” dessert of strawberry ice stacked with frozen meringue. There is no better spot to learn that Russian food isn’t always heavy and boring. The blini with salmon caviar, borscht laced with smoked goose, dainty pelmeni dumplings filled with diced mushrooms, similar to tortellinis, all changed my mind on the country’s cuisine. It all sounds heavy. It’s only heavy if all of this feast is for yourself.
Sampling former Soviet republic cuisines such as Armenian at Noah’s Ark is a joy in Moscow, and the standout cuisine would be that of Georgia. No, not peaches and barbeque. We’re talking about fist size dumplings known as kinkhali, various vegetable and nut puree spreads such as spinach pkhali, luscious sour yogurt and sweet fruit syrup desserts, and an invention known as khachapuri that gives Neopolitan pizza a run for its best form of pizza money. Nobody does Georgian better than in the hip, dark paneled two tiered dining room of Khachapuri (owned by Ragout, see below) off of busy Tverskaya. Clearly, the kitchen cares here. Do try the eggplant and walnut rolls and the tender roast duck in “cornel sauce.” And there is nobody but locals in the audience. Despite a language barrier, the beyond helpful server even grabbed a menu for himself and looked from the Russian version to the English version to point to us what he truly recommended as the obligatory dishes. The man made no mistakes. He may even have cracked a smile too.
And if there is one essential stop for any diner in Moscow, it would be Ragout. Yes, it’s a bit off the beaten path near Belorusskaya metro, but the sleek dining room, and ingredient driven cuisine with a few molecular gastronomy modern flourishes could easily reside in SoHo or Santa Monica. As my friend wrote to me, “It gives you hope that Moscow does have some fresh food if you know where to look.” The chef Ilya Shalev is a disciple of Paris’ Alain Senderens and London’s famed celebrity haunt, The Ivy. The co-owner and visionary is Alexei Zimin, who is a protege of such vaunted French chefs as Raymond Blanc and Michel Guerard. Zimin started the Afisha-Food Magazine, essentially Le Fooding or Bon Appetit for Russia.
Yet, the cuisine is more California meets London gastropub, rather than France or Russia. Think charcoal grilled foie gras as a terrine with caramelized radishes or a pristine dorado carpaccio with alternating, vibrantly flavored and colored spheres of tapenade and pesto. Nearly every other table seems to have a serving of his famed version of fish and chips. Only the timid, yet perfectly poached salmon yearned for more of some sauce. The caramelized fennel alongside and the juniper dusting on top added some unique sing. Zimin’s pastas and desserts seem to really be his strong suit, especially the impressive slab of chocolate terrine with specks of white chocolate ganache and pistachio mousse. In the end, it’s the pure, fresh myriad vegetables salad with cold salmon (not smoked, but cold, cooked salmon) and a green tahini that won over my Bay Area born heart.
It’s shocking Ragout doesn’t get more press. Then again, it’s shocking that a food revolution hasn’t swept Moscow off its feet because of Ragout. It’s an oasis. I bet when I next return to Moscow, things will be different.
Five Best Dishes
Khachapuri: Khachapuri Adzharian
Puffy bread, shaped like an alien space ship with a texture not entirely unlike focaccia. With the fried egg on top continuing to cook as you break warm piece after piece of bread off, this is one of the more unique and rewarding forms of pizza. Don’t be surprised to see this be a trend coming to a city near you soon.
Khachapuri: Kinkhali Dumplings with Meat
Similar to Shanghai’s xiao long bao dumplings, except twice the size and with a slightly more stringent skin. The knot at the top is rough, uncooked dough. It seems fun to chew on at first until you realize it’s meant more for dogs to chew on. Sensational when flavored with meat broth.
Pushkin: Borscht with Smoked Goose
Exemplary rendition of the classic Russian beet based soup. Borscht can be chilled or warm, remarkably bland, or transcendent. Thanks to no shortage of smoked goose meat and beef broth, this version falls in the latter of both categories. No other borscht I’ve tasted comes close. Yes, those are peach slices as a garnish. You get fruit, vegetables, and meat, all in one.
Ragout: Lamb Navarrin with Gremolata and Gnocchi
You could find this quality at a Mario Batali restaurant. Feathery soft gnocchi with some kick from the gremolata. The lamb meat is fork tender, similar to a sugo, intensely flavorful, with distinct notes of cinnamon. Nothing short of a top tier pasta dish…in Russia or Italy.
Ragout: Chocolate Terrine with White Chocolate Ganache and Pistachio
Imagine that most remarkable foie gras terrine, then translate into chocolate form. There’s not a lot of jazz going on here. Lush chocolate mousse with specks of white chocolate and pistachio. If possible, it’s even better than it sounds. Chestnuts garnish the pistachio crème anglaise. I’ll be frank. It’s dessert perfection.
The Concept of Moscow: Long Menus
Narrowing down the choices at any of these restaurants takes half an hour. Restaurants in Moscow seem to follow the Dostoyevsky- Tolstoy model.
The Cocktail of Moscow: Vodka
Maybe a vodka tonic? Seriously, you’re in Moscow, this has to be the answer. Of course there are differing levels of vodka. Yours truly had too many nightmarish evenings in college with low caliber vodka to truly appreciate this art. However, even a chilled glass of Russian Standard vodka at Pushkin is smoother and less prickly than anything in the U.S. That being said, water still tastes better.
For cocktails, Bar Strelka and the Ritz Charlton’s O2 Lounge are essential stops at least for the atmosphere. I’m told that Soup and Darling, Call Me Later (yes, both are bars) are possiblities for decent drinks. Strelka makes decent, if unspectacular classics including a fine White Russian (you have to have one…) and a Campari heavy Negroni. The place is constantly packed with its magnificent setting along the Moskva River. Strelka is an arts institute, so this is one of the few places where you can breathe easy and speak English.
The O2 Lounge is quite the surreal experience. First you stroll through the lobby of Moscow’s premier hotel, the Ritz, then arrive on the rooftop in Miami Beach. You’re in Miami Beach, but staring across the way at Red Square and the Kremlin. Hmm, is that Putin or Lebron James? The early evening brings tourists like yours truly, along with the group of supermodels behind me, the mob boss with too small a short smoking a cigarette a minute to my left, and a billionaire, all alone with bottle service champagne. The view and atmosphere are knockouts. The drinks are an afterthought. The “Tropicana” with Captain Morgan Spiced Rum and Mango Puree is Jamba Juice and the “Palm Beach” with Ciroc Vodka, fresh grapes, melon liqueur, and pineapple juice is Gatorade.
The craft cocktail/mixologist movement has not arrived in Moscow yet.
Shall We Grab Coffee?
No. But if necessary, let’s go to Paul, a boulangerie import from France, similar to Le Pain Quotidien. There, the espresso is actually quite acceptable, as are the baguettes. Trust me, after two days in Moscow, nothing looks more tempting than a slice of Paris.
The Third Wave Coffee movement has definitely not arrived in Moscow yet. Need caffeine? Get vodka.
Beer or Wine?
Again, see the coffee note. Definitely not. The worst Guinness on draught I’ve encountered was dirty water called Guinness at Shakespeare, a pub across from the Moscow Art’s Theatre. Strangely, all the wine I tried in the city was from Chile or Argentina. French and American bottles have stratospheric price tags. South American countries must have a good relationship with the Russian importers.
The Restaurant of Moscow: Ragout
Pushkin is classic Russian done well. Ragout is a game-changer and could be a game-changer even in the U.S.
The Symbol of Moscow
And The Final Word…
Paris or Moscow?