From Eater.com, excerpts from an upcoming Swallow Magazine article by Micha Rinkus: Moscow is one of the worst places in the world to put things in your
mouth—a city where foodies go to die, or at least complain a lot.
Actually, effete foreigners can find plenty of things to grumble about
in Moscow, not limited to its weather (cold), its government (absurdist,
petro-authoritarian), and its people (xenophobic, linecutters).
Nonetheless, among these very salient bitching points, dining out floats
to the top.
That's not to say home-cooked Russian grub isn't tasty. Like hell it
is. Carbohydrate-heavy comfort food—beet soup, meat dumplings, fried
potatoes, fried cheese, fried lard—is the time-tested method to insulate
your body against a long hard winter, and have fun doing it. The only
condiments in action are salt and sour cream. Occasionally ketchup if
it's for something exotic, like macaroni. You can eat like a tsar for
only 50 rubles a day. Until your heart explodes. The Russian diet, along
with cigarettes, unprotected sex, and bathtub vodka, has driven the
national male life expectancy down to 59 years, right above Ghana.
So Russian food is an Atkins Dieter's nightmare. That's not the
problem. Anyone who has just eaten a stack of blinis (thin buttered
pancakes, liberally covered in sour cream or jam) will attest that it
was time deliciously well spent—sucks to longevity. Also you have to
admire the sheer calorie-for-your-ruble value of it all. Russia's was a
cuisine modestly engineered for thrift.
Which is what makes going to restaurants in Moscow so aggravating:
the brazen over valuation of the mediocre. When you go out to eat in
Moscow, you always pay too much and receive too little value, either by
means of peasant food (sorry blinis) masquerading as haute cuisine, or
foreign dishes violently adapted to local standards. Ever seen a
Russified chimichanga? It's achingly sad, like a camel in the snow. East
Asian food typically suffers the worst, as the Russian palate rejects
anything spicier than mayonnaise. Thus, Moscow pad thai tastes the same
as Moscow chow mien. Both of them taste like freeze-dried Ramen without
the little flavor packets. None are very popular with the local folk,
needless to say.
Yet, sushi enjoys a surprisingly high status. Since the late 1990s,
you can find it everywhere, at every little hole-in-the-wall cafe with
elitny aspirations. It's even boxed up and sold at street kiosks for
those who really like to take their life in their own hands. Like
Tex-Mex, Russian sushi is on its way to becoming a legitimate food
hybrid, identifiable by its ample mayo filling and tiny portion size.
The dinky bento box at Planeta Sushi is about when many die-hard foodies
give up on ever finding decent ethnic food in Moscow. But we all have
our own breaking points. I lost my appetite somewhere around Etazh, a
nasty cafe chain that's managed to harness Moscow's worst restaurant
tendencies: ludicrous face control (more on that later), tacky design,
and shameless misrepresentation of the rich culinary traditions of
Japan, Italy, and Mexico. Also, it's loud and the waiters are mean.
Faced with flaccid dragon rolls and impostor burritos, mastication just
stopped being fun.
All this culinary horror can partially be explained by the fact that
Moscow restaurants are playing to a captive audience. For reasons
financial and political, there aren't many world-traveling Muscovites
who've had the opportunity to taste real paella in Barcelona or even in
Fresno, California. And those who have are typically of the filthy rich
overclass, most of whom haven't developed any deep respect for
gastronomy. Almost twenty years since the fall of the Soviet Union, New
Russians still aren't bothered by halffrozen carpaccio.
Occasionally one of them does return from abroad inspired. Bistrot, a
palatial Italian restaurant, happened after two restaurateurs visited
Forte Der Marmi in Tuscany, and decided to replicate it in Moscow. They
did a good job, for the most part. Everything is imported, including
antique furniture, artisan ceramic tiles, and a pedigreed Italian chef.
Food is unimpeachable, probably as close as possible to the real thing,
as all ingredients are flown in daily from Italy. The only problem is
that you have to take out a loan to eat there. For a slice of prosciutto
and a glass of Chianti at Bistrot, I could have had 100 hot dogs from
the kiosk chain Star Dog, a stalwart of quality in the oft dangerous
world of street dining.
However, authenticity usually ranks low on the priority list for
restaurants. Food as a whole is only slightly more important, because
high rollers stick exclusively to meat and potatoes, and their
girlfriends to Russo-Japanese fusion. No, for the high-end restaurant,
towering above all (to the chagrin of gourmands), is the visual
spectacle. And in Moscow, the things you see are about as weird, flashy,
tacky and ambitious as they get. Once you embrace this unique quality
(and accept that you have to eat a hot dog on the street before dinner),
you can be happy eating out in Moscow.
When I'm not hungry and not paying, one of my favorite restaurants in the world is Bon, a Novy Russki
haunt that probably started as a prank, but ended up the real thing.
Industrial designer Phillipe Starck, harboring a sick fascination with
Moscow elitny excess, chose the city for the third instantiation of his
international restaurant chain Bon. Teaming up with a restaurant group
whose previous effort was called Billionaire (to give you an idea of the
scale of ridiculousness they were aiming for). The result is fantastic,
gleeful, over-the-moon camp: Kalashnikov gun stands, obscene frescoes,
taxidermy iced out in Swarovski jewels—essentially, it's Starck's ironic
vision of what a rich man with no taste would want his restaurant to
look like. The irony is that none of its patrons, minigarchs and molls,
appreciate the irony.
For the visuals, I'd eat at Bon every time I had the chance. For
sustenance, I'd rather shovel dumplings and sour cream in my mouth over
the sink in my apartment. And it's not that the food is bad. The menu is
decent, if scattered and over-priced, full of the boring Moscow
favorites: sea bass, steak, salad, and, immutably, sushi. No different
from T.G.I. Fridays, really. But what's clear is that food is the
afterthought, not the raison d'être. They created a glorious temple to
camp, then remembered it was a restaurant.