After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, tourists slowly started to return to Russia. This enigmatic land famous for its Lada cars and iconic space programme was opening up, and the world wanted a taste. Guidebooks from that era – while making great noise about Moscow’s palatial Metro stations and winter sunbathing at a famous fortress in St Petersburg – were suspiciously quiet about restaurant recommendations. And for good reason.
“Seventy years of Soviet power, unfortunately, left an imprint on the kitchen,” laughs chef Vladimir Mukhin. Russian cuisine, to many people back then, was blinis, herring and cabbage “drowning in mayonnaise,” he adds.
A lot can change in a few decades. Today, Moscow’s restaurant scene is undergoing a thumping renaissance, with innovative eateries across the city pioneering a New Russian cuisine that pivots gracefully around traditional ingredients and recipes that had for years been forgotten.
Mukhin is a driving force of the movement and head chef at White Rabbit, a central Moscow restaurant currently ranked number 15 on the World’s Best 50 list. Named after its hard-to-find location – diners must pass through a shopping centre, then take two lifts to the 16th floor of Smolenskiy Passage tower – the restaurant presents traditional dishes from the pre-Soviet era of the Russian Empire, such as swan liver, mousse lip dumplings and oysters from the Black Sea, reincarnated for a modern audience.
“My father and grandfather instilled a love of Russian cuisine in me,” Mukhin says of his chef relatives. “We lived in the small southern town of Yessentuki … Only what was sold at the local market could be used.”
In 2013, Mukhin opened White Rabbit, a lavish space with panoramic views of Moscow, to present Russian food with Russian ingredients, at a time when post-Soviet diners were craving fine French food, Italian pastas, sushi from Japan: the delicacies they had been denied for so long. At first Mukhin opened a farm near his hometown to supply his restaurant, but soon realised it was “not profitable to do so in the Russian climate… as it will yield only three months a year.” Instead, Mukhin began working with “several farms in different regions – Tver, Saratov and Sochi – which constantly provide me with the best products.”
His direction was prescient. In August 2014, almost all food imports from the European Union and the United States were banned, in retaliation to import sanctions placed on Russia. In July 2018, the ban was extended to May 2019, signalling that Russia cannot just survive without foreign products, it can thrive that way, too.
With Italian olive oil, American beef, and French cheese all off the menu, Russians were forced – once again – to look inwards. This time, the results were mouthwatering. Bjorn had opened in 2013, after its owner ate at the renowned NOMA in Copenhagen and was inspired to bring the New Nordic food movement, which emphasised local, natural and seasonal produce, to Moscow. The restaurant’s decor is an oasis of calm, with live moss carpeting the windowsills and art installations of bears, moose and deer on the walls, created from twigs found by local lakes. Once the embargo kicked in, Bjorn took the New Nordic concept a step further: the smorgboards, clean Scandinavian design principles and dedication to environmental care remained, but now all the ingredients would be from Russia.
“The sanctions inspired many people to start their own farms,” says Nikita Poderyagin, head chef at Bjorn and originally from Stavrapol in southern Russia. “Because of the new rules everyone started to create their own unique handcrafted produce.”
Farmers from around Russia approached the restaurant with their produce, while the kitchen team – which features just two Moscovites – was dispatched back to their home provinces to research local delicacies. “Today, we have farmers in Siberia who gave us meat such as deer, and others in the north of Russia who provide wildfish,” says Poderyagin. The menu changes every three months, to ensure ingredients are seasonal.
A Scandinavian restaurant without ingredients from that region might sound strange, but when it comes to dishes such as Scandi quail with green-sprouted buckwheat, “Finland’s climate is very similar to ours,” explains Poderyagin. The restaurant, he adds, is able to source exactly the same species of fish in Russian waters.
With an influx of new ingredients, chefs and farmers across Moscow star-ted to cooperate closely. Over on Tverskaya Street, Moscow’s main artery that snakes down to the Bolshoi Theatre and Red Square, chef Boris Akimov opened LavkaLavka. Billed as a co-operative between the restaurant and Russian farmers, the four-year-old space was a spinoff of an online farm shop selling produce from Russia’s remote regions, which had proved wildly popular.
“At LavkaLavka, we cook modern and gastronomic dishes from local, seasonal produce,” says manager Alexandrova Julia. The menu of this hipster hangout features deer carpaccio, profiteroles with smoked cherries stuffed with duck pate, and mullet caviar, with the farms that supply the produce name checked beside each dish. “On our website, we list all farm members of our cooperative. You can read about them, talk to them, find out where to visit them,” she says.
Perhaps one of the most interesting menu listings is a Russian cheese board served with four organic honeys. Russia? Cheese? Those two words should appear in the same sentence more often, it turns out. Produced in the western Smolensk region of Russia, which rubs cheeks with Belarus, these smoked cheeses are up there with the best of the French and the honeys – especially a mysterious green variety – are from Uryupinsk, north of Volgograd, and divine.
“Do we know anything about our cheeses?” asks Mukhin. “Sochi suluguni, from which cream oozes when you press on it, is very similar to mozzarella. And we have all sorts of smoked chee-ses. This is also our story.”
With more creative ingredients has come more innovative presentation. Delicatessen, a decadent basement joint in a sleepy part of north Moscow, was the brainchild of Russian bartender Vyacheslav Lanking, who looked to bring an upmarket gastropub vibe to the city. But with a menu that includes horsemeat tartare seared with a hot metal iron at your table, its menu offerings exceed its humble brief, as does the live jazz band that entertains its stylish guests at weekends.
At Bjorn, the salmon gravalax is served in a glass terrarium, the smoked fish is buried with a dollop of Russian sour cream in a heap of dark brown bread crumbs, topped with seaweed. The idea dates back to farming in Finland, when cooks without fridges would bury their fresh catch in the frosty ground to chill them during the winter months.
Even over at Cafe Pushkin, one of the city’s most storied restaurants, housed in a building with a history running back to the 1790s, Russia’s vast geography is creatively on display, with dishes such as sheets of frozen muksun from the Siberian Arctic waters, its icy presentation a physical reminder of Russia’s vast geography.
According to Poderyagin, of Bjorn, this surge in creativity and national pride in cuisine has only surfaced in the past five years. It represents, he says, merely the beginning of what Russian chefs have to offer. “We are a really young country. Our chefs before were from the Soviet culture, and didn’t know how to cook. Now we have so many people willing to create something special and make a point.”
Travelling to Russia in 2018, particularly as national pride soars after a successful World Cup, is like experiencing a brand new country. The grey Moscow of the 1990s, overcast with depression, bad memories and worries for the future, has matured. Today, this metropolis of golden spires has ditched the sour flavour of its Soviet past and is dreaming up a new future in the kitchen. It tastes good.
WORDS: Louise Tam