When the wheels of my plane touched down in Moscow, I was overcome by a sensation of wonder bordering on disbelief. I was actually here in Russia, a country forever topping my list of dream destinations. Like many others coming of age during the Cold War, my concept of Russia was based on myth, limited to Boris and Natasha, Baba Yaga, and “The Hunt for Red October.” My mother’s family is Ukrainian, so I was raised with black bread, pickled herring and borscht. My love for Eastern European cuisine only fed my fantasies of gilded towers, fur “ushanka” hats, lipstick pistols and candy-colored cathedrals.
I arrived just after sundown as it began to rain. I located my driver and slipped into the back of a sleek black car with tinted windows. I couldn’t help but fantasize about vanishing royalty, secret societies and espionage as we darted through Moscow’s legendary traffic. It wasn’t until I checked into my dramatic Soviet-era hotel room that I fully realized where I was. Just outside my window, through the driving rain, I could see the spires of the Kremlin rising alongside the domes of St. Basil’s. My fairytale had suddenly become reality.
My first foodie destination was the famed Pushkin Café, known worldwide as the best Russian restaurant in Moscow. Joined by a friend in town for business, I braved the forty-minute taxi ride through that painfully famous traffic to travel roughly four kilometers. Despite our late arrival, the smartly dressed doormen swept us inside and down a set of wooden stairs to the mandatory coat check, a Russian standard. We were then led through the ground floor café; every table in the place was packed with men in tailored suits and women draped in sparkling cocktail attire. Champagne glasses were filled to the brim and cigarette smoke lingered heavily in the air. It truly felt like we were stepping into another era.
We passed through a door in the back and up a narrow staircase to the formal second floor dining room. The small, well-lit “library” room was bathed in opulence. I felt like I had stepped into a painting from Catherine the Great’s private collection. A crystal chandelier hung from the ceiling. The room boasted sculpted walls accented with gold leaf, luxurious silk drapes and a working fireplace. Even though I knew that the relatively new (circa 1990s) restaurant was much more of a historical reenactment than reality, I allowed myself to be swept into the whole 19th century palace fantasy. After all, that’s part of the fun.
Heavy, leather-bound menus exhibited page after page of various gastronomic offerings. The cuisine at Pushkin Café is Russian with some French influence and a dose of the avant-garde, but what sets it apart (and beyond) is a meticulous attention to detail. The ingredients are of the highest quality and presentation borders on Fine Art. Making choices among so many options proved to be a challenge, but we mainly stuck with the classics and took a few recommendations.
The meal began with a taste of Russian “pies”, or small, shiny stuffed buns. We sampled the sauerkraut and minced meat flavors. They were tasty enough, but left me with a nagging sensation that I was filling up on bread when there was so much more of the meal still to come.
Russians are famous for their salads, especially the Salade Olivier, notoriously delicious but not exactly a “looker” on the plate, traditionally made with a variety of meat, eggs, canned vegetables, pickles, and mayo. At Pushkin Café, the salad is deconstructed into canapé form; boiled eggs, capers and diced pickles are bound with thinly sliced chicken and topped with a lattice of mayonnaise. This was the standout dish of the evening. Another winner was the beet and anchovy salad, accompanied by a tangy vinaigrette.
I went out on a limb with one of the more creative specials, a dish constructed to evoke a feeling of “winter.” Over the summer, my broken foot led to the cancelation of a number of planned foodie escapades. I was the most sore about missing Finland and my opportunity to try reindeer. To my surprise, there it was, right on the menu: reindeer carpaccio, dressed up to look like Rudolph himself, with red berries and white snow-like foam. To be honest, raw reindeer is as strong and gamey as can be expected. The dish was more than “edible”, but not about to top my list of foodie favorites anytime soon.
Soup is a staple of the Russian diet, served at most meals year-round. The most famous of all Russian soups is the Borscht, a hearty beet soup with a stunning deep red hue. It can be served both hot and cold. This borscht was served steaming hot and filled with mixed vegetables. Another notable soup is the deeply flavorful “24 hour sauerkraut soup” prepared with veal, simmered for a day and presented with a golden-brown puff pastry lid. Sublime.
With many hits, there was bound to be at least one miss. For me it was the pelmeni, veal-stuffed dumplings served in a spiced butter sauce. I found myself overwhelmed by the richness of the butter and was unable to put down more than a few.
Naturally, you can’t have a proper Russian feast without including the ultra-famous Beef Stroganoff. Thin, tender strips of beef swim in a savory sour cream sauce, made with mushrooms and onions. At Pushkin Café, the richness of the dish is cut with sides of garlic pickles and sliced potatoes. The dish made a perfect ending to an extravagant dining experience.
There’s a reason why Pushkin Café is ranked so highly among Moscow’s restaurants. The atmosphere and impeccable service are equally as important as the cuisine, allowing diners to step into their own fairytale-like fantasy. I observed businessmen at one table, growing increasingly jovial as each heartfelt toast was punctuated by a vodka shot. At another table, a quiet couple enjoyed a romantic meal, as if they were the only ones in the room. Even the dining room windows are blacked out, as if the outside world would only detract from Pushkin Café’s carefully constructed suspension of disbelief.
26s Tverskoy Bulvar, Moscow
Telephone: 8 (495) 229-55-90
2010 Mileage Total: 48380