Friday, April 8, 2011

Eating Moscow: Traditional v. Innovative

If it weren't for the touch screen waiter's monitor, you could be standing in someone's living room in Moscow circa 1979.
A secret restaurant in a Russian housewife's living room? Or a Russian-home-cooking joint and just another quirky thematic restaurant in the vast Ginza Project empire?  It is hard to tell the difference upon entrance, after you've rung the door bell on at what looks like a standard Moscow apartment building.

Someone answered the door and we were ushered into the entryway where we were instructed to hang our coats before proceeding to the table. Decorated like an old-fashioned and slightly worn living room, it was cozy and familiar.
Meat jello...
The menu, although authentically Russian was nothing to write home about. It may have been my fault for ordering the meat jello – but I like a challenge and couldn’t pass this one up. The “herring in a fur coat” – a typical Russian herring salad in beets and mayo has also been filed away under things I am glad I tried but don’t necessarily need to eat again. It was fine. But it is not something I will find myself craving after a fast.

Herring in a fur coat
The borscht was good, the mushroom julienne was creamy and warming, the blini with salmon were also done well. As I said, it was all authentic and it was all good. It just wasn’t great. The real reason to go is the atmosphere which was cozy and novel and allowed us to pretend we were getting a home cooked meal – even though there was a group of native English speaking tourists or expats a few tables over.

Mari Vanna is owned and run by the Ginza Project – hear of them? They have over 20 different restaurants and cafés in Moscow and have recently branched out into everything from fitness to taxi service to design to flowers to - sky's the limit - or at least something called "Ginza Sky". And they aim for world domination. They have opened a Mari Vanna in New York City and have plans for other projects abroad, rumor has it. 

But out with the old and on with the new...

Ragout: The head chef of this trendy Moscow restaurant is Alexei Zimin, who is also the editor -in-chief of “Eda”, Russia’s only good food magazine according to the critics. The mag covers everything from up and coming Moscow chefs, recipes that range from traditional to innovative and finally, the kicker, the last section offers recipes for foods that can be made with common household appliances (Soup cooked in the coffee maker? Fish poached in the dishwasher? Chicken spatch-cocked between two irons, anyone?).

After stints with big magazine titles in fashion and travel, Zimin decided that if he was going to take the helm of a food magazine he needed a formal education in his subject. He signed up for classes at the Cordon Bleu in London and came back with real chef creds which propelled him from his editor’s office into the kitchen. He currently captains both ships – AH-MAZING.

Ragout was opened by Katya Drozdova, Muscovite restaurateur who also opened Khachapuri, the hip new Georgian establishment that we very unfortunately did not make it to. She is a 30 something mother who has, with these two standouts and other projects in the works, firmly established herself as one of the big names in the Moscow food scene.
While I tend to shun the hot and trendy in favor of the hole-in-the wall, taco truck, old men in the tea shop type establishments, this is Russian cuisine too I reasoned and so we joined the scensters at Ragout: me, Julie, her friend Ana, my friend Elena, a Russian food and travel journalist based in Italy and her friend Irina, a Moscow fashion designer. Hello lovely ladies! The scene was buzzing, the light coming down in soft spotlights from above, tables pressed close together in rows, the young and beautiful nibbling on seafood risotto or vegetable tempura, tuna tartar with avocado or cod served over white beans and chorizo. But the stand-out of the evening, and I am not a dessert person normally, was the bacon and egg ice cream with salted caramel and brioche. The ice cream tasted like bacon, the “egg” was little bits of apricot, the salted caramel was thick and luscious served on the side in a little pot and the brioche was like a deeply saturated French toast.

The evening was capped off with a visit to the members-only bar Petrovska (Irina was a member) – a soviet nostalgia bar where hipsters mingled with  middle-aged foggies – and us - not tragically hip, but not yet foggies. We danced to horrendously bad 70s music, drank vodka with a group of ladies who came of age in the 70s, and then were spontaneously absorbed into a high school reunion in the “kitchen” themed dining room (there were several rooms that were themed to look like a different part of a typical Soviet apartment.

The owners asked for donations and trolled flea markets to find old Soviet nostalgia from people’s homes which make the basis for the decoration. Soviet kitsch heaven.) We danced with a couple of very sweaty 50 year old men and swapped remember when stories even though we had no shared history (fake it till you make it!)

Whether you are young and hot or absolutely not, in search of babuschka's borscht or something you could just as well find in NYC, it's all typical Moscow.


  1. Wow, this sounds like quite the experience! I just really can't get over the meat jello, though... most of the other food you describe seems interesting, but meat jello sounds HORRID. :P

  2. It was my fault for ordering it - anything in aspic is unappealing to me - but I had to try it anyway! It is served with sides of horseradish and very strong mustard - which will cover the taste of absolutely anything. But it can't mask the texture - unfortunately!

  3. Very interesting to go through all the pictures and the Russian eating style. Once we had a group of Russian travelers and all they wanted was lobster and crabs. They told me that it is pretty expensive in Russia.