Letter from Russia: Moscow’s latest revolution (is culinary)

Gone are the bandit days of the Russian Wild East, the roaring 1990s, when the pyrotechnic shrapnel from mafiya bombings and Kalashnikov shoot-outs ripped flaming through the shroud of Moscow’s endless snowy nights. No longer do caged strippers gyrate in warehouse discotheques under the deadpan stares of shaven-skulled mafiozy. Vanished are the night club dance floors teeming with gorgeous hookers and soused expat carpetbaggers flashing greenbacks, the King Dollar. Against a backdrop of mass hinterland impoverishment, the Moscow Zeitgeist of the roaring nineties was one of excess, delirium, and revolt – revolt against the inhumanly shabby, puritanically austere, prematurely geriatric identity the Soviet system forced on Russians of all ages.

This revolt played out largely after dark, in cafes and bars and restaurants, and had everything to do with realizing long-repressed dreams of satiation, with reveling in once-forbidden Western-style pleasures of the flesh and palate. One might argue, in fact, that the demise of the Soviet Union was less about democracy and human rights, and more of a protest against bad borsht, and that same bad borsht, meted out in such small portions (to paraphrase Woody Allen), in dank cement canteens in a country spanning eleven time zones.

The collapse of the Russian economy in 1998 quelled the revolt, dimmed the lights, and sent most foreigners packing. After the elections of 2000, sober Vladimir Putin reigned in the Kremlin as president, and now pulls the strings of government as prime minister in the Russian White House. A quietus followed his instatement, then an energy-revenue boom that has fast outstripped historical analogues. Oil is now pushing $80 a barrel (eight times more than during the Yeltsin years). Even as the Russian economy has slipped into recession (as a result of the world financial crisis), petro-dollars have been flooding in and trickling down, average personal income has doubled, and the number of poor Russians has halved.

A new New Russia has emerged – one now the fourth most ravenous consumer of the planet’s luxury goods. The mafiozy have aged, gone legit, or been jailed, and ordinary Muscovites, relaxed, affluent, and proud of their country yet appreciative of the West, have confected what may be the most vibrant and varied café, restaurant, and club scene in Europe. As a denizen of Moscow’s after-hours haunts for the past seventeen years, I can state without reserve that partying in the Russian capital is serious business, the raison d’être for a people to whom nocturnal leisure is still a thrilling novelty, a way of asserting identity in what is (for Russians), after all, an era of cultural tumult no less momentous than the 1960s were in the West.

I can state without reserve that partying in the Russian capital is serious business, the raison d’être for a people to whom nocturnal leisure is still a thrilling novelty.

Does Russia belong to the East or the West? The question has been dogging Russians for centuries. In the nineties, well-heeled Muscovites, lusting after foreign flavors, flocked to MacDonald’s, Maxime’s, the night club Manhattan, and sushi bars, paying exorbitantly for often shoddily prepared dishes. Now, the Russian beau monde, having enjoyed the freedom to travel for nineteen years, has finally reached a verdict: East, at least in Moscow, meets West. Or should.

Gazing out through the sweeping panoramic windows of the UFO-style, circular penthouse of City Space Café, thirty-four stories above ground, atop the Swissôtel Krasnye Holmy, nothing strikes me more than how Moscow’s skyline has come to reflect this Orient-Occident fusion while retaining its Russianness. Neon-lit Samsung and Nokia adverts mingle with Cyrillic-lettered billboards for Megaphone (a local telecommunications provider) and Gazprom; Cherokee and Mitsubishi SUVs crowd Ladas and Volgas on lanes ringing the Kremlin’s snow-dusted walls; Stalinesque wedding-cake skyscrapers dominate the hills; and just beyond Swissotel’s perimeter stand illuminated signs in Russian for the restaurants La Pizza and Sushi Street. Moscow’s once dark and grimy urban vista has given way to a cityscape grand and increasingly sleek, fully befitting the capital of the world’s largest country.

On the ground, GQ Bar is among the venues that best exemplify the new equilibrium. Located in a seventeenth-century burnished brick edifice a few steps from the Baltschug Kempinksi Hotel and the inky currents of the Moscow River, GQ Bar, which opened in March of 2007, has replaced Vogue Café as the top purlieu of the elite, especially the zolotaya molodyezh (jeunesse dorée), but not only: Bruce Willis, Naomi Campbell, and Prince have numbered among the guests, and Russian glitterati are regular attendees. Both Vogue Café and GQ Bar are affiliated with Condé Nast Publications, both are the brainchildren of the McDonald’s rejectee and star Russian restaurateur Arkady Novikov, whose creations helped relaunch and refashion the restaurant business (in a European way that embraces local tastes) in Moscow after the crash of 1998.

I’m visiting GQ Bar with my friend Anya, a thirty-three-year-old department head in a gas-trading company. We enter through a dark mirrored anteroom and a cavernous bar, the counter of which glints like a sapphire runway in a blue and orange gloaming. Covering some 5,000 square feet, GQ Bar’s luminous, open-kitchen chambers serve six types of cuisine, including Thai, “Mediterranean,” Italian, and Russian. We have trouble knowing where to begin reading the menu-tome, but GQ Bar’s executive chef, thirty-something Konstantin Ivlev, recommends that Anya try a persimmon julep. She tastes the sugary orange pulp, and calls it “a culinary orgasm.”

Exotic fruits, like seafood, are among the most prized dishes in a country with little of either. They must be imported, naturally, which puts me off, so I find myself sampling the kasha, a costly ($38 a bowl) variant of Russian breakfast gruel, but one comprising, besides husked buckwheat, chopped calf cheeks and white mushrooms.

Ivlev tells me, “This kasha is a new twist on an old dish, so it pleases both Russians who want their kasha and foreigners eager to try our food.”

It takes guts to offer what might be termed peasant grub for such money, but despite a minor excess of oil, it caresses my palate. The little dish, and other Slavic items like it on the menu, seems to stand for an abandonment of the Western conceits of the 1990s, for Russia’s return to Russia, yet a Russia presented with Western concern for quality.

To cook his way back home, Ivlev, a native Muscovite who attended a Moscow culinary institute, had to perform a lengthy, ad hoc apprenticeship in Europe, starting in Prague, where he spent seven years while his father was stationed there as a KGB agent.

“The sovok” – “dustbin,” derogatory slang for the Soviet Union – “couldn’t teach me anything,” Ivlev says, brushing heavy flaxen bangs away from his broad forehead. “After cooking school, I went to Europe on my own to study food in Paris, London, and Madrid, to find out what real cuisine is.” The experience made him, and on returning to Moscow, he manned the kitchen for a steak house in the Swiss-owned Sadko Arcade, a groundbreaking establishment here in the 1990s. Ivlev is resolute that no trace of sovok infect GQ Bar, so he avoids hiring sous-chefs (of whom he employs 120) with previous Russian cooking experience. “Better to take on a former construction worker I can shape than any sovok graduate who’s learned nothing except how to chop and slice.”

As we taste airy but rich chocolates and biscuits prepared on the premises, wafer-thin twenty-five-year-olds are streaming in and sitting down, their hollow, solarium-bronzed cheekbones cast into relief by floor lights.

Ivlev cooks to keep them skinny. “Our customers no longer want goulash and macaroni,” he says. “My guiding thought is how to make food” – even Russian fare, traditionally heavy on creams, fats, and frying – “light and fresh and fast,” he says. “People these days are choosing to eat fresh because they care about their health.” Paunchy, boozed-up Soviet-era bear-men are dinosaurs on the night scene now, as are the heavyset matrons who once so besmirched the image of Russian women abroad. “One word sums up my cuisine: fresh,” he says, using the English word.

Yet later, Anya and I find ourselves hankering after something less “fresh,” something, as Anya puts it, more rodnoye (from the Motherland): blini with caviar, cold cuts of cow tongue dipped in mustard, hot slabs of fat-marbled pork, and the infamous arterial catastrophe, the salad Olivier, a pyramidal pile of peas, sausage, potatoes, boiled eggs, carrots, and cucumbers, all lathered in mayonnaise. We consider going to the renowned Pushkin Café (which opened in 2000), with its inlaid ceiling and walls covered in frescoes à l’Hermitage. The Pushkin offers everything from blini to Kamchatka crab salad to flaming Black Sea Barabulka, but its waiters exude an irritating Parisian hauteur that is entirely out-of-place in earthy Russia. So, we take a taxi over Bol’shoy Kamenny Bridge, past the Kremlin’s floodlit congeries of gilt cathedral domes and brick towers topped with glowing red stars, to the restaurant Godunov, across from the Bolshoi Theater, on Revolution Square.

We heave open Godunov’s engraved wooden doors to confront a uniformed militiaman coiffed in a stout gray shapka-ushanka (floppy ears pinned up) – a reminder that where vodka is quaffed straight, hour after hour, a less-than-subtle security presence is often needed. Musicians in white smocks serenade us with balalaikas and accordions as we disrobe at the hatcheck.

Beneath vaulted cloistral stone ceilings and stanchioned lamps, we’re soon settling into bulky refectorial chairs, studying menus ensconced in leather casings. Godunov occupies the four dining halls of a seventeenth-century Russian Orthodox monastery. Our waiter, a pale blonde youth in a red caftan and black sharovary trousers, brings us lepota, an assortment of sliced pheasant, goose, pork rolls, and veal tongue arranged around gobs of fiery Russian mustard and horse radish, plus a serving of moist blini with salmon roe and, of course, Olivier salads. We will drink what Anya prefers: the vodka Tsar’skoye Selo (Tsar’s Village), served straight, in a frosted carafe. Perhaps only pure vodka can cut through all the fat we’re about to ingest and get us tipsy – the mutually avowed desideratum. Vodka Anya calls by its affectionate diminutive, vodochka (dear little vodka). Russians have traditionally disdained mixed drinks: what’s the point?

We tuck into our blini and lepota. The rich dishes pique our appetites, inciting a lust for further calories and more oil, more fat. The monastery setting itself conjures up the Russia of extremes, the Rodina (Motherland) of blizzarding taiga and boundless steppe, the eternally feminine Matushka Rossiya (Mother Russia), the Svyataya Rus’ (Holy Russia) of glinting gold thuribles and incense-filled cathedrals – anything save the godless defunct USSR.

But Anya harbors no sentimentality about religion and her Rodina. “Christianity was imposed on us by fire and the sword,” she says. “We’re Christians in name only. We’re barbarians, after all, Scythians, really. Pagans, in a word.”

I like the proud sound of her words: no bashfulness, not an inkling of false pudeur. We raise our glasses, toast to our meeting (one always toasts before tippling here), and gulp our vodka to the dregs (as is Russian tradition), chasing it with bites of rich black bread.

“I can drink French wines and all that,” Anya says, “and sometimes I do, but vodochka is rodnaya. Vodochka will never let me down.”

“I can drink French wines and all that,” Anya says, “and sometimes I do, but vodochka will never let me down.”

As we spear meat with our forks, smother our blini with roe, and pound back more vodochka, out of the adjacent chamber ambles a folk ensemble: a male accordionist and four young women in spangled oriental robes and brocaded headdresses, sartorial vestiges of Russia’s Eastern Orthodox heritage and its adoption of Christianity from the Byzantine Greeks. They begin belting out folk songs, Rodina tunes so rousing that we suffer urges to jump up, throw aside the tables, and stamp out the famous squat-and-kick Kazachok dance. Soon Anya (and other patrons) are joining in the chorus. We down vodka shot after vodka shot, sing, feast, and toast to our entertainers. Only the Godunov’s stone walls keep our voices from carrying into the windy frigid night outside.

“We will develop our own culture,” Anya declares, once the singers have finished. “We’ve left Christianity and communism behind, and the future belongs to us.”

High on vodochka, sated by lepota, and inspired by the lyrics, I find it hard to disagree.

* * * *

Wealth in Russia has always flowed less from entrepreneurship and investment, more from proximity to power. In business here, competition, marketing strategies, the law of supply and demand, and other trifling factors count for little without connections, and preferably of the cloak-and-dagger kind. As under the tsars and the Soviets, so under Prime Minister Putin, a former KGB colonel, the secret services wield decisive power.

So it’s both ironic and supremely fitting that one of Moscow’s top (and few) wine bars, Vinoteca Dissident, faces Putin’s old fiefdom, the FSB (the KGB’s successor agency) on Lubyanka Square. The FSB’s yellow and gray megalith, its sooty windows high, dark, and menacing, looms over the square, and seemingly peers down into Dissident, or, more accurately, into the sleek Nautilus shopping mall, on the fifth floor of which Dissident sits. This contrapositioning makes sense: in Soviet days, the power to arrest and the power to shop (and dine well) went together, with KGB agents having access to special stores selling prized foreign delicacies unavailable elsewhere.

Still, a view recalling labor camps and decades of Stalinist terror doesn’t exactly enhance appreciation for the pleasures of the grape. And there’s another incongruity. Facing inward, one encounters the rustic accoutrements of a French wine cellar – grainy wooden walls, bottles of reds in roughhewn racks, rugged nets of garlic and onions and garroted peppers — all set against interior windows opening onto corridors of fashion boutiques, toy stores, specialty tobacco shops, and beauty salons.

But Dissident is nevertheless one of my favorite places. Joining me for drinks is my friend Galina, an accountant at a company specializing in the installation of backyard swimming pools – a booming business in Moscow these days.

“Such inhuman architecture,” Galina says, looking out at Lubyanka. “It’s so different from Rome here.”

Like most Russians who’ve prospered since the Soviet collapse, Galina travels to Europe once or twice a year. Her tastes have developed along European lines; nothing sovok will do. In fact, nothing but the finest Europe has to offer will pass her finicky muster.

The sommelier awaits her order. She peruses the wine list, which is encased in a cardboard binding abraded to resemble an original edition of a nineteenth-century Russian novel, and brims with 250 choices from France, Italy, Chile, Lebanon, and beyond.

“I’d like a lightly sweet wine,” she tells him, “with a taste of grape, not a dominant grape, you know …” He makes suggestions. “No, no, not this wine, not that wine, something tart, not fruity, a bit more subtle, not like this or that.”

She orders several wines, but the sommelier informs us that they’re out of stock. Galina finally asks for a glass of the same Cabernet Sauvignon I’m drinking.

“Sovok!” whispers Galina, exasperated, once he has stepped away. Her adopted frame of reference being Europe, she believes, not without reason, that everything on the menu should always be available.

Yet Dissident is not sovok. It is a good-faith effort at bringing European tastes in wine to Russia, where the Bolsheviks once effectively diagnosed oenophilia as a bourgeois disorder treatable with bracing decades in Siberian gulags. Moreover, the scene around us shows how much things in Moscow have improved. A pianist artfully taps out a sonata, as British and Russian businessmen discuss (in English) management methods and profits. The Russians are taking as much care as the British in ordering cheeses to match their wines, and their English is fluent, which a decade ago might not have been the case. Russians have been, until recently, as famously monolingual as Americans.

The most expensive wine on the menu is Chateau Lynch Bages (33,600 rubles, or $1,400, a bottle), and other wines here run $100-$200 dollars a bottle – costlier than in Europe, but then they’re all imported. Dissident is expensive for a bar à vins in a shopping mall. But the wine and cheeses we’re eating are, after all, delicious; the view of the FSB inspires reflection on how Russia works; and ten years ago there was no place in town like it.

* * * *

Nor was there any place like Anya’s favorite night spot, Bar Vision, on Bol’shaya Yakimanka Street. The next evening, she and I sit there poring over the disconcertingly vast panoply of dishes arrayed against us in a modish menu of checkered black plastic: steaks on slabs, spring roll umaki with eel and flyfish caviar, and all sorts of seafood, Italian, Russian, and Japanese favorites. There are traditional Russian items as well: i.e., cabbage and beet juice for $7 a glass, the sort of swill grandma plied you with (for free) out at the dacha, after a day of hoeing and sod-busting. The atmosphere is perpetual midnight: the bar glows blue, red, and green; studio lights cast intersecting columns of smoky silver from the high ceiling; but illumination mostly comes from the spotlight outside the picture windows shining in.

Anya finally orders a mojito from among the seventy-odd cocktails catalogued (and photographed) in the drinks menu; and our blasé waiter, standing with one hand behind his back, his head cocked left, has just poured me a Diet Coke. A giant plasma screen above the bar flashes Russian Fashion TV; the female models stalking the runway could be, and perhaps are, some of the slinky young women around us here, including the svelte twenty-year-old beside me in chic combat boots and a t-shirt printed with Andy Warhol’s portrait of Marilyn Monroe. Her green feline eyes peer from above sculpted cheeks, her billowing blond locks have an alluring, after-sex untidiness. The $15,000 chronograph weighing down the slender wrist of her Vuitton-clad date now and then reflects a spotlight beam into my retinas and blinds me.

The beauty and opulence on display is overwhelming. I glance around and wonder if Russians haven’t knocked Westerners off their commanding perch above Narcissus’ pool. Outside, up and down Bol’shaya Yakimanka, through shimmering curtains of falling snow, lights flash atop glistening black vehicles shooting down the central lane reserved for official traffic; polished SUVs are parking in front and disgorging more Vision customers, belles in minks, beaux in Prada. What does all this mean, and how long can it last? Will this glitz and tinsel flare up and burn out, as the Russian economy did on the afternoon of August 18th, 1998? It all seems precarious, dangerous even.

But this is Russia. Anya sips her mojito and wonders what could be bothering me.

Ending the night blotto, once de rigueur among the notoriously bibulous Russians, is rarely an option chosen by le tout-Moscou now. But, if they wish, they can do so in safety and Bohemian style at the well-worn intelligentsia hangout, Club Vysotsky. There, the eponymous Brezhnev-era bard’s throaty tunes (plus Wake Up, Little Suzie, Back in the U.S.S.R., Hound Dog, etc.) animate some of the capital’s wildest dance crowds in retro Soviet surroundings, complete with sepia-tinted photos of grinning workers and toiling peasants.

Retro Soviet is, in fact, an established theme on the night scene, but the crowd in Vysotsky’s is above thirty. The new generation’s Retro Master is couturier Denis Simachev, who has turned plain Communist kitsch into (lavishly priced) finery, the import of which, with all its sovok symbols, might be lost on those unfamiliar with life in the USSR. Simachev has also opened one of Moscow’s most exclusive nightclubs in the first floor of his shop, Denis Simachev Bar, on the boutique lane Stoleshnikov, just down from another vertex of state power, the Moscow mayor’s office, the fin-de-siècle palatial bunker from which Lenin harangued the masses after the 1917 revolution.

Anya and I have trouble finding Simachev’s until we note an upside-down DENIS sign — all that marks the squat, red-yellow boxy store-club. We talk our way past the clotheshorse guard enforcing face-control. (The $50-$400 cover charges of the nineties are gone, and entrance to most clubs is free.) Inside, in the violet murk, retro lurks, to be sure, but Simachev’s creation doesn’t make sense to me. I wonder if it does to him. “Questionable authority, doubtful cultural achievements, and ambiguous historical moments create the vision of the Denis Simachev company,” announces the couturier’s web site. He said it.

Muscovites are living history, but most of all, they’re living for the moment, burning their way into the future with pelf and panache. To plunge with them into the bonfire is to know Russia, with all its perils, promise, and pleasures.

Simachev has styled his tiny club to resemble a cross between a 1950s washroom in Grand Central Station, a deranged orientalist mock-up of Studio 54, and the abode of a psychedelically challenged Addams Family. A fanged leopard’s head and airplane ejection seat draw doubletakes. Patrons lounge at stainless-steel washbasins, fiddling with faucets and sipping Evian; black and white men’s room tiles checker the walls; and a plethora of static disco balls refract the light piercing dangling crystal beads and curlicues of smoke. Rising from near the entrance through the ceiling is a staircase, on which guests line up like supplicants ascending to heaven’s gates. In fact they’re surrendering their coats at an impromptu second-floor hatcheck.

Puzzled and wonderstruck, Anya and I sip red wine and lean against the washbasins. Suddenly the crazy paraphernalia of the interior collude to make consummate sense. Muscovites, newly flush with rubles, have cobbled together the bric-a-brac of the West, adding homey touches from their past, and are striving to adorn the boreal whirlwind blowing through their nocturnal lives. They’re living history, true, but most of all, they’re living for the moment, burning their way into the future with pelf and panache. To plunge with them into the bonfire is to know Russia, with all its perils, promise, and pleasures.

* * * *

Jeffrey Tayler is the Moscow-based contributing editor for The Atlantic and the author of numerous books, including Siberian Dawn, Facing the Congo, Glory in a Camel’s Eye, Angry Wind, and River of No Reprieve. His most recent book is Murderers in Mausoleums. He is also a contributor to Conde Nast Traveler, National Geographic, Harper’s, and Smithsonian magazines.

[Photos: Flickr | AlphaTangoBravo; Andrey Dorokhov; Jespahjoy; Gribiche; Jespahjoy; Vvillamon; AlphaTangoBravo]