Huge and prone to architectural gigantism, full of energy, both positive and dark, refined and tasteless at the same time, Moscow is overwhelming in every way. After a major spruce-up it has undergone in recent years, the mind-bogglingly eclectic Russian capital may look like hipster-ridden parts of Brooklyn at one point and a thoroughly glossed-over version of North Korea at another.
Russia’s recent political adventures may have generated an avalanche of negative headlines, but they’ve also had an adverse effect on tourism. Once a forbiddingly expensive place, Moscow is now totally affordable thanks to the Russian rouble losing half its value. It’s also a safe and orderly place, where efforts to make the urban environment more liveable and enjoyable are bearing very visible fruit. Ten years ago it would have been shocking to hear someone declaring Moscow’s food culture as the city’s main draw, yet here we are stating just that. The local culinary scene has undergone a revolution Gargantua would have approved of, though Lenin probably wouldn’t.
You can start your day within vision of the Kremlin walls at Dr Zhivago (drzhivago.ru), which now occupies the premises of a historic cafe on the first floor of the National Hotel. Perhaps Boris Pasternak’s literary hero wouldn’t have appreciated the subdued Soviet nostalgia this place is permeated with, but he’d love the mischievous irony thrown into the design and ambience.
Statues of young pioneer girls, blindfolded with red ties, look at tables adorned with fresh red carnations, like those that old folks bring to Lenin’s Mausoleum nearby. Stained-glass copies of Kazimir Malevich paintings adorn the walls, and ceilings are decorated with Soviet-era mosaics that depict enthusiastic youngsters peering confidently into clear blue sky, symbolising the communist future. The chef has upgraded the menu of a standard pioneer camp’s canteen to near haute-cuisine level, with a line-up of masterfully cooked porridges, pancakes, Ukrainian varenyky (dumplings) and cottage cheese pies.
Dr Zhivago’s location is perfect as a starting point for a day of exploring the Kremlin’s architectural and artistic treasures. But if retro-Soviet kitsch is not your thing, the elegant neighbourhood of Patriarshiye Prudy (commonly called Patriki) has plenty of unassumingly pleasant Brooklyn-style places such as Scramble (facebook.com/pages/Scramble-Cafe), which serves a variety of omelettes and Belgian waffles. Every nook and cranny at Patriki alludes to Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel Master & Margarita, so don’t be surprised if a human-sized black cat takes a table next to you and orders mint cocoa with marshmallow.
Obed (known elsewhere as lunch) has traditionally been the main meal of the day, so until recently it was pretty hard to find a place to grab a quick – and healthy – bite without losing much time. This is no longer the case, as the city is filling up with hip little delis and cool fast-food joints. Drop by Voronezh (voronej.com) for great pastrami sandwiches and burgers, best watered down with its signature beetroot-and-horseradish lemonade, which tastes much better than it sounds. For more traditional Russian staples, head to Lepim i Varim (lepimivarim.ru), where dumpling artists showcase their skills from a stage-like open kitchen. Both places are in the centre, close to the Bolshoi Theatre and Pushkin Square.
Further afield, the Danilovsky Market is a real treat for lunching crowds as it houses a few dozen little eateries serving everything from Vietnamese pho soup and Dagestani kurze (dumplings) to Greek moussaka and hand-made Italian pasta. Next to it, the taiga-themed Fedya, dich! (facebook.com/fedyadich) serves tartares made of Siberian fish and main courses with wild boar and deer.
What’s unique about Moscow’s restaurant scene is that it showcases the cuisines of former Soviet republics, of which Georgian and Uzbek ones are world-class, even though they are totally under-represented in Western countries. There are myriads of places serving that kind of food in Moscow. For a decent Uzbek plov (rice and lamb dish) and kebabs, head to Kazanbar (kazanbar.moscow) on Tsvetnoy Boulevard.
Khachapuri is a great little Georgian eatery, with standard staples adapted for tourists, which is perfect for lunch. But for really authentic khachapuri (cheese-filled pastries), khinkali (dumplings) and shashlik, you must visit a classy place like Sakhli (sahli.ru), and that’s better done in the evening. This is especially so since Georgian food is unthinkable without Georgian wine: it’s completely different to anything you’ve tried before because it’s made of grapes that are endemic to the Caucasus.
Before heading out for dinner, consider sundowners at Timeout Bar – it occupies the tower of Peking Hotel, which provides excellent views of central Moscow. Signature cocktails with birch-tree sap are recommended as well the fried koryushka fish, a staple synonymous with St Petersburg, Russia’s imperial capital and Moscow’s arch-rival. However, the best panorama restaurant, in our opinion, is Darbar at the top floor of Sputnik Hotel. Excellent Indian food, its quality confirmed by Indian expats prevailing among the patrons, is accompanied by the broad view of the bending Moscow river and Sparrow Hills.
If your dinner must be an authentic and sophisticated Russian experience, head straight to the tried-and-true Café Pushkin. Yes, it’s expensive and has been around forever, but its menu is a full encyclopaedia of classic Russian dishes, from beef stroganoff and chicken Kiev to bliny (pancakes) and pelmeni (dumplings).
However, if you want to feel the modern vibe, Delicatessen remains the most revolutionary food laboratory, famous for bold experiments with all sorts of ingredients and cooking styles its travel-obsessed owners bring from faraway places. But beware of that wooden cabinet behind the bar – its shelves are filled with brewing nastoyki (fruity liquors) – if you want to keep your composure for the next day of your Russian adventure. If that’s not a consideration, plunge straight into the abyss. Where to get drunk if not in Moscow, after all.