Eat as many regional cuisines as you can in Moscow in 48 hrsFeatured June 13 Words by Katrina Kollegaeva
Illustration by Holly Exley
"Give me a knife and I'll put it to my throat," cries our Armenian waiter with scary gusto. "I cannot allow you to pay for your wine!" It's only two hours into my trip to Moscow and I am experiencing a typical Caucasian welcome first hand. The natives of the former Soviet state on the borders of Turkey and Iran are well known in these parts for their legendary generosity, so I shouldn't really be surprised by this gesture.
What's caught me entirely offguard, however, is quite how good the meal that I've just polished offis. Well spiced and vibrantly coloured, it's nothing like the stereotype of boiled meat and dumplings that many have of Russian food.
Then again, if you think about it, it's not that surprising. When it existed, the Soviet Union spanned one-sixth of the world's surface, stretching from Scandinavia to China. Today, that former empire has been divided into 15 states, each with its own culinary identity, and Moscow is now a melting pot for all those many cuisines - from Azerbaijani, which is Asian influenced, to Georgian, a cross between Middle Eastern and Mediterranean. Having starved myself for days in preparation, I'm here to see how many of these different varieties I can sample in 48-hours between Saturday and Monday lunchtimes.
This isn't just about filling my face, however, but investigating a current culinary trend. I was born in Estonia to Russian parents in the Soviet days, when many dishes from 'friendly republics' became the norm on menus, and in recent years, these traditional national cuisines have come back into vogue among smart Muscovites. Not merely for nostalgia's sake, a new wave of restaurants are attempting to modernise this cooking, introducing diners to unusual local ingredients in the process.
Aveluk, a type of wild mountain sorrel with a mostly umami flavour, is a case in point. At Gayane (1/4 2nd Smolensky Pereulok; www.gayanes.ru), the Armenian restaurant I just mentioned, I eat it cold as zakuska (meze-style appetiser in Russian) and then in a soup with lentils, chickpeas and dates that has a seductive, most unusual flavour. Then there is sibekh (wild sicklewood), which is reminiscent of asparagus, but meatier in flavour.
These are just the tip of the iceberg. The restaurant is on a mission to combat the widely-held belief that Armenian food is greasy and heavy. "In fact, historically, our people ate very little meat," says Gayane, the owner. "The diet is mostly based on wild herbs and vegetables."
That's not the only surprise. "While researching the origins of our food, we discovered it shares similarities with indian cuisine," she says. For example, ghee-like clarified butter is used extensively in such dishes as Ershta - home-made noodles fried in butter and served with caramelised onions - and Matsun, a yoghurt-like dish fermented in Gayane's kitchen with a distinctive sweet-and-sour flavour. Matsun is also made into pastry for a delicate dessert called Gata.
"This is like my grandmother's cooking, but so much more," enthuses Karina Baldry, with whom I'm sharing the dinner. She and I run a super club called Russian Revels (www.russianrevels.co.uk) in London and, as she's a Muscovite of Armeno-Georgian origin, I thought she'd be a fine partner to bring along for the evening.
Modernising Caucasian cuisine is what our next restaurant, Saperavi (27 1st Tverskaya-Yamskaya; www.saperavicafe.com), is doing better than most. Run by a young couple, Khatuna and Tegiz, it was named Best Georgian Restaurant by Time Out Moscow in 2012. The pair source most ingredients from Georgia in order to recreate authentic dishes - with their own twist.
We arrive there just in time for dinner and we're not disappointed. "During Soviet times, Georgian cuisine became known for being spicy, but it's more aromatic than hot, more complex," they tell me. "When we opened, we were questioned a lot on why certain dishes weren't made 'correctly'. It took time, but now guests really appreciate what we do."
Take Kharcho soup. The Soviet version was made with rice, beef and tomato paste. In Saperavi, it's a stew of veal, cobnuts and saffron from the Imeritian region of Georgia, reminiscent of a fragrant Indian curry.
Saperavi's menu uses a glorious glut of nuts - walnuts, cobnuts, pine nuts, pecans, peanuts - and cheese. You might be surprised, but Georgia has a huge variety of the latter. Suluguni, which is mild, tart and very stretchy, is used in the famous Khachapuri bread, while Chkinti-kveli, similar to Mozzarella, is stuffed with mint and Matsoni sauce (the Georgian equivalent of Armenian Matsun) to make ghebzhaliya. By the time we're done, we virtually have to be rolled out of the premises, but the game is in full swing - two down, 13 more former republics to go.
Sunday brunch has taken off in a big way in Moscow, with many hotels offering lavish spreads of lobster, caviar and other luxury staples, but I'm here to sample a more local version, thanks to an Uzbeki newspaper seller. He recommends Uruk (30 Tsetnoy Bulvar Ulitsa, Building 1; www.urukcafe.ru), so that's where I head after a long sleep.
This chain serves traditional food from Uzbekistan amid low lighting, colourful tableware and a busy, open-plan kitchen where they make their noodles by hand.
Samarkand, the capital, was an important Silk Route point, so Uzbek food, such as the famous Plov, is full of spice. This rice dish is made with slow-cooked lamb and a mix of seasonings including savoury, barberry and cumin, and there are different types of Plov for every occasion - a sweeter version with dried fruit is supplied at weddings, for instance. "It improves the mood of the newlyweds," says our young waiter, winking as he serves up a slice of gamey horsemeat sausage.
It's a delicious morsel, but I can't eat much more than a mouthful as I have to move northwards - geographically speaking, that is. Buryatiya is a republic adjoining Mongolia and its cuisine is the order of the day at Selenge (23/15 Maloya Dmitrovka; www.selenge.ru).
Owner Donara Gordoyeva established the place "out of sheer nostalgia" and it's not long before I'm tucking into Buuzas, dumplings made with a mixture of pork and beef. Bite into them, let the hot, well-seasoned stock inside run free and then eat the rest. "Buuzas are addictive," offers my Buryatiyan neighbour clandestinely as I as let the delicious food slip down. "You'll keep eating them."
What's becoming very apparent is the sheer diversity of cuisines available in Moscow these days. It's an eyeopener even for me. Among the thousands of regional restaurants, I doubt any are quite as out there as Expedition (6 Pevcheskiy Pereulok; www.expedicia.ru) though. Some may find the décor in this Arctic-themed restaurant a little over the top (furs on the walls, real life-size helicopter), but the menu will dispel any myths about Russian food being dull.
This place specialises in exotic dishes and ingredients from the far northern regions of the country and was originally set up by a group of enthusiasts after an expedition across those parts.
Where else will you find freshwater Stroganina (fish frozen by the naturally cold temperatures right after being caught) served with sea salt, cowberry and mustard dip and home-made soy sauce? It's a taste sensation, so clean and fresh, and sets me up for the next course: elk, wood grouse in a 'real hunter's stew' with salty saffron milk caps, soused bilberry, mulberry jam, cowberries served with Siberian pine nuts and condensed milk. These are the kind of wild goodies that were in abundance hundreds of years ago and the reverie they induce lasts right until bedtime.
So it's the final day and I've eaten five different cuisines. It's a respectable total, but with my final few hours I intend to get a real taste of the city's foodie revolution. My first stop is LavkaLavka, a small chain of shops and a café (5 Nizhniy Susalnyj Pereulok, Building 10; www.lavkalavka.com) that
promote local and organic produce. Its slogan - 'Support your local farmer!' - says it all. "There isn't anything new about this interest in provenance," says Jennifer Eremeeva, an American who has lived in Moscow for 20 years and writes a popular food blog (www.moscovore.com). "Most of my Russian friends have their own informal network of farmers and suppliers in the countryside, but the LavkaLavka team have done an excellent job of harnessing this tradition and turning it into a viable business."
Alongside workshops here - Eremeeva runs sessions on making jams, jellies and chutneys - you can enjoy modern takes on old Russian recipes, such as pea kissel (akin to polenta) and pike burger with pumpkin frites. It would, of course, be rude not to taste these, so I tuck in.
"The Moscow culinary scene is changing dramatically," Natalia Palacios tells me later as we grab a coffee. She organises the Omnivore festival (www.omnivore-moscow.ru), which celebrates young, dynamic chefs, such as Ivan Shyshkin, whose Gifts of Nature (www.facebook.com/DaryPrirodyVagon) street wagon serves poshed-up burgers using Russian ingredients and Ilya Shalev, a chef at Ragout Café (www.ragout.ru/cafe), known for its French techniques with Russian ingredients.
"People got tired of candelabras," she continues. "Russian chefs are travelling more, getting new ideas, but also exploring their roots. The mayonnaise has emulsified, as the French say."
Ask people in Moscow where the best Russian food comes from and many will point to the Ukraine, which historically had the most fertile land and the best produce. So Shynok (26a Tverskoy Bulvar; www.maison-dellos.com), which combines these traditional values with a new approach, is a fitting end to my 48-hour marathon.
"We call our restaurant Loft in the Ukrainian style," says Ulyana, one of the managers here, as she shows me around a large, warehouse space of bare brick and large windows, the kind of place you might find in a trendy London or New York location. The only difference is that there's also a live cow behind a glass window.
But if the livestock harks back to rural homesteads, then the food is decidedly urbane. "We haven't messed with recipes, but we've worked hard to present them differently," explains Ulyana. Salo, for instance, is a dish of cured pork backfat, similar to Prosciutto, served on a black plate with a paintbrush stroke of mustard, peppercorns and rye-bread croutons.
And then there are the tiny Pirozki (stuffed buns), presented on hot stones, with a wild mushrooms, offal and hare filling. They're a fitting finale - and the best pastries I've had in years. But, more importantly, they reflect a real synergy between old-time Russia, which still exists everywhere here, and the new cosmopolitan. This is the taste I came here to find and I've (really) had my fill. Time, I think, to step away from the cutlery.
Moscow: need to know
26,336 Visitors to the World Food Moscow 2012 exhibition
90 Percentage of Russia that can't be used for farming because of its cold climate
STAY The elegant Mercure Arbat Moscow hotel is a stroll from the cafés on Stary Arbat Street.
You'll need a visa to enter Russia. This can be obtained quickly and easily from The Russian National Tourist Office, from tourist visas to multi-trip business visas. Prices start at £105. www.visitrussia.org.uk/visa