Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Eating Moscow: Maslenitsa

Smetana. Caviar. Blini.

 We were there just at the right time. Almost. I flew out of Moscow just as Maslenitsa was beginning. Butter festival or Pancake Festival, Russia's version of a Fat Tuesday - the chance for Orthodox Christians to get their dairy in before you have to give it all up for 40 days of lent culminating in the celebration of Easter when they are allowed to get their dairy, meat, alcohol and booty calls on once again.

Chefs like Elmar Basziszta at the Baltschug Kempinski were gearing up for Maslenitsa with "Blini Menus", traditional blini recipes like blinis served with caviar and smetana, an ultra-thick and luxurious kind of sour cream or quark, and more creative variations like buckwheat blini with pan-friend scallops, baked beetroot and truffle vinaigrette, beef consummé with pancake julienne, lamb loin wrapped in garlic-rosemary blinis on grilled bell peppers, blinis rolled with smoked salmon, cream cheese and spinach or topped with forest mushroom ragout.

Basziszta claims that most Russians prefer to stick to the classics. They like traditional dishes served in traditional style, he insists. But the Kempinski caters to an international crowd and the chef reveled in the opportunity to experiment.

For those who didn't make it to the Kempinski due to prior commitments or constrained budgets, there were other ways to get a pancake fix that were less abusive on the pocketbook. Teremok, the popular fast food-style chain and blini specialist also expanded its menu to include a variety of classic and holiday blinis to go. We may have missed the blini stands set up around the Kremlin the following week, but thanks to Chef Basziszta and Teremok, we definitely got our fill of Maslenitsa in Moscow.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Eating Moscow: Café Pushkin

Where to start, where to start? With a classic perhaps to put things into context. Not only was the iconic, must-at-least-drink-a-coffee-there Café Pushkin architecturally striking, it was somehow able to be cozy despite the slight air of pomposity. It's the kind of place my grandmother might have taken me to as a kid, where I would sit fidgeting, scolded for using the wrong utensil. At the same time, in the late afternoon sunlight, after shedding 45 layers of wool and fleece, it was welcoming, comforting. The downstairs was informal, whereas upstairs one might feel underdressed without a jacket and tie. But the atmosphere, inviting as it was, is not what would keep me coming back. That, would be the food.

The wild mushroom pelmeni ruined me. I don't think I will ever order pelmeni again because none that I will ever eat will be as good as the mushroom pelmeni at Pushkin. 

The mushroom julienne, (I was in a mushroom mood, perhaps still reeling from the meat jello the night before, but that's another story) was served in an adorable edible cracker pot - I bit into the lid to see if it was edible. It is - but I would advise against it, I think I cracked my tooth.

The story of this place is equally charming. Back in the 80s, Russian Andrei Delos was a student studying architecture in Paris. After the fall of the Soviet Union he went back to Moscow, intending to stay for a short visit. Bureaucracy extended his stay indefinitely and soon Delos, fluent in French, was giving city tours to French tourists. 

The French tourists all seem to have one request: Can you take us to Café Pushkin? They had heard about the café in a popular French song about a Russian tour guide who falls in love with a French tourist and in the song he takes her to "Café Pushkin". Thing was, there was no such thing as Café Pushkin. It did not exist. But after being repeatedly asked about the famous non-existent café, Delos had an idea. The architecture student invested his savings in building from the ground up a café that was designed to look like it may have been Pushkin's house. Decorated in period style, he overlooked no detail. Café Pushkin quickly attracted not only the French, but the Moscovite glitterati in droves. To get in today, you need to push past the hordes of SUVs parked outside, drivers waiting with motors running. The establishment has become an institution and it's established Delos as one of the major players in the Moscow restaurant and club scene.

His latest creation Turandot, has been all over the press lately. Again the design was overseen by Delos' and his keen architect's eye for detail. Built in a "French Chinese" style, the place is opulent, beautiful yet on the verge of becoming gaudy. When we visited, a group of eight adults sat at a table while their children, the girls in white islet dresses with satin sashes (and snowflakes that stay..), ran up and down the stairs and around the dining room as though they were at a picnic in the park. It reminded me of a scene from the Nutcracker, some how so bourgeois Russian - like a dream sequence.  

Café Pushkin is open 24 hours - which surprised me - you wouldn't peg it as a 24 hour kinda joint. Apparently around 4-5 am it fills with SUV-chauffeured 20-somethings who are wrapping up a night of clubbing.

For the food, the atmosphere, the people-watching, when in Moscow save your pennies (which you will have had to do to even breath the air in Moscow) and take them to Pushkin. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Red February

February. The last full month of winter. The last of your already spent patience with the cold, ice, multiple layers, dry skin, frozen toes. And one of the last places you'd probably think to go during this month is Moscow. And yet...

here we are.

Not realizing that I should have said, "Um, let's wait til July!" when my friend Julie called and asked what I thought about a little trip to Moscow during the last week of February, I instead replied by checking ticket prices and googling Russian visa application procedures. And while the next time she calls with a similar proposal, I will most definitely say, "Let's wait til July!", I am glad I got to see Moscow in its fully frozen, minus 18 degree glory. I should come clean and admit that it was minus 18 on the Celsius scale - which I later learned is only about -1 Fahrenheit. As a Green Bay native, -1 Fahrenheit was a typical, if not practically unseasonably warm day in any given January or February. But while I was in Moscow, I wrote emails to family and friends, with the subject heading: "18 F*CKING DEGREES BELOW ZERO!!!!" And it sounds so much more dramatic, more respectable than "ONE F+CKING BELOW!!!", right? But really, once you get below zero, it's just cold period. 

Me and my two wool sweaters, long underwear, three long sleeve t-shirts, snow boots, wool coat, and fleece hat outside the Bolshoi

To warm up, we were forced to duck into a number of local establishments like


pastry closets, 


bath houses, 



and living rooms 

seeking reprieve from the cold. And while we warmed up, we stocked up. On pelmeni, chocolates, massages, Soviet nostalgia, khajapuri, blini, opera, fur and matrioshkas. For all of the heavy comfort food, the steaming hot saunas, and a certain camaraderie that comes from frozen masses huddled together, maybe February was the best time to visit after all. 

More on all of these places and the things we stocked up on ... next.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Sniff's Grantourismo Top Ten Travel Tales

Atop Petra
In random order...

Spending the day with Pol Pot's former Head of State, Khieu Samphan and his family at his home outside of Pailin, Cambodia, a stones throw from the Thai border. Khieu is currently sitting before the International Tribunal pleading not guilty for his role in the deaths of 1.7 million Cambodians during the Khmer Rouge regime. During our lunch at his house, he completed denied any responsibility for the events and claimed ignorance.

After an incredible day at Petra, Jordan, we climbed atop the old court building at closing time with my friend Anees and his Bedoin friend who grew up in Petra. We had the park all to ourselves as we made tea and watched the sunset – 300 meters up. Then scrambled down in the dark after the police called to say they found our car in the middle of no where and wanted us to come into the station. Sobering, ahem.

Sharing my first khinkali dumplings with Stalin’s great grandson in Tbilisi, Georgia.

Breaking fast with the men who shovel the coal that warms the bath water in a little cave adjacent to the hamam during Ramadan in Fez, Morocco. We ate stuffed dates while they showed us the hole in the wall where they spied on the naked ladies in the bath.

My three-day overland trip from Dakhla, Morocco via 50 car military convoy through the Western Sahara territory into Mauritania. We then continued from Nouadibou to Nouakchott – it too us four days to drive 400 km through dramatic sand dunes in a Mercedes van, pulling the plaques out, stuffing them under the wheels and jumping back in the van as it was moving, Little Miss Sunshine style.

Getting caught in a rainstorm while sleeping on a rooftop in a small village in Dogon country, Mali. As we climbed down from the roof I burst into a rousing rendition of "Singing in the Rain" which turned into a medley of my favorites from "My Fair Lady", "Oliver" and "Sound of Music". The owners of the roof wanted to reciprocate so they cajoled the children into singing a traditional Malian song for us. They were fantastic and we gave them a thunderous round of applause.

My first trip abroad at 16, a month-long exchange in northern Italy. I fell in love with the food, the culture, the people... and Massimiliano.

My first summer in Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic where my friend Vasek took us floating down the Vltava on inner tubes. We got out every five minutes or so, pulling over at a local bar to grab a Pilsner, a shot of Slivovitz and some head cheese. Then continuing the float, a lazy day around a gorgeous castle and lots of fire wire.

Standing on the rooftop of an old haveli in downtown Lahore, Pakistan during Basant, the annual kite festival, watching the kites dip and dance and fight. Cheering the winners who remained in the sky and sympathizing with the losers whose kites were cut and plummeting.

Driving around the Blue/Hazrat Ali Mosque in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan on Nowroz (New Years) only to find ourselves suddenly surrounded by a jubilant mob, singing and dancing and playing drums on the hood of our car. We were in standstill traffic, with euphoric revelers ten people thick surrounding us. There was a sudden moment of panic realizing that if this mob suddenly got out of hand, we could be in serious danger. But when we looked at the buzzing mob, we realized there was nothing but good will and good energy. And we were part of it.

This post has been entered into the Grantourismo-HomeAway UK travel writing competition for February. What are you favorite travel memories?