In recent years Moscow has blossomed into a culinary capital. Foodies will be thrilled by the dining options, from old-fashioned haute-russe to contemporary 'author cuisine'. The ban on imported foodstuffs means that chefs are finding innovative ways to utilise local ingredients, rediscovering ancient cooking techniques and inventing new ones in the process. And Moscow diners are eating it up. Literally.
Russian cuisine is strongly influenced by climate and class. Long winters and short growing seasons mean the cuisine is dependent on root vegetables such as potatoes and beets. Fresh produce has always been a rarity, so vegetables are often served pickled; fruit is frequently served in the form of compote. According to an old Russian proverb, 'shchi (cabbage soup) and kasha (porridge) is our nourishment'. This saying emphasises the important role played by soups and grains in sustaining generations of peasants through cold, dark winters.
Russians rarely skip breakfast, or zavtrak. Russian cuisine includes half a dozen kinds of kasha, or porridge, including buckwheat, millet, oat and semolina. Bliny are thin, crepe-like pancakes with sweet or savoury fillings. At the very least, you'll get bread (khleb) with butter and jam, alongside your tea.
Appetisers & Salads
Whether as the preamble to a meal, or something to snack on between vodka shots, zakuski (appetisers) are an important part of Russian cuisine. Back in the day, a good host always had a spread of zakuski on the table to welcome unexpected guests.
Most famously, ikra (caviar) is the snack of tsars and New Russians. The best caviar is black caviar, from osetra or beluga sturgeon. However, due to overfishing, sturgeon populations have declined drastically in recent years, driving up prices and threatening the fish with extinction. The much cheaper and saltier option is red salmon caviar. Russians spread it on buttered bread and wash it down with a slug of vodka or a toast of champagne.
Most traditional menus offer a multitude of salads, many with names that will leave you scratching your head. The universal favourite is salat olivye (Olivier salad), which is chopped chicken or ham, mixed with potatoes, eggs, peas and mayonnaise. Another classic is seld pod shuby, or 'herring in a fur coat' – a colourful conglomeration of herring, beets and potatoes.
Soups are perhaps the pinnacle of Russian cooking, with both hot and cold varieties turning up on menus and in local kitchens. The most famous is borsch, or beetroot soup, but other favourites include solyanka, a meat broth with salty vegetables and a hint of lemon, and okroshka, a cold soup made from kvas (fermented rye-bread water).
Soups are served as the first course of a Russian meal. As such, they often appear on the menu under the heading Pervaya, or 'first'.
Traditional Russian main courses are usually heavy, meat-based dishes. Fried cutlets (kotlet) and grilled kebabs (shashlyk) are popular preparations that often show up on the menu, listed under Glavnaya (main) or Vtoraya (second). Especially satisfying in winter, look for zharkoye (hot pot), an appropriately named meat stew served piping hot in a single-serving ceramic pot.
Pelmeni (dumplings) are the ultimate Russian comfort food. Traditionally from Siberia but now served everywhere, these bite-size dumplings are usually stuffed with pork or beef, then topped with sour cream. Variations such as salmon or mushroom pelmeni are also on the menus of modern Moscow restaurants.
A decade ago, Moscow was mad for sushi. You’ll still see it on many menus, but the raw-fish craze is finally starting to tap out. What is not going anywhere is the more general interest in international flavours. When you tire of beetroot soup and beef stroganoff, you’ll be able to find excellent French, Italian and American restaurants, not to mention Chinese, Lebanese, Thai, Turkish and more.
Also popular – and perhaps more interesting for visitors to Moscow – are the rich cuisines from former Soviet republics of Central Asia and the Caucasus. The capital is littered with restaurants representing the best of Armenian, Azeri, Georgian and Uzbek cuisines – usually with natives manning the kitchen.
Table Scraps from Heaven
In her book The Georgian Feast, writer Darra Goldstein describes the former Soviet republic of Georgia as 'a land blessed by Heaven's table scraps'. Short of Heaven itself, Moscow is the best place outside the Caucasus to sample this rich, spicy cuisine.
The fertile region – wedged between East and West – has long been the beneficiary and victim of merchants and raiders passing through. These influences are evident in Georgian cooking, which shows glimpses of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavours. But the truly Georgian elements – the differences – are what make this cuisine so delectable. Most meat and vegetable dishes use ground walnuts or walnut oil as an integral ingredient, yielding a distinctive, nutty flavour. Also characteristic of Georgian cuisine is the spice mixture khmeli-suneli, which combines coriander, garlic, chillies and pepper with a saffron substitute made from dried marigold petals.
Georgian chefs love to prepare food over an open flame, and grilled meats are among the tastiest items on any Georgian menu. Herbs such as coriander, dill and parsley are often served fresh, with no preparation or sauce, as a palate-cleansing counterpoint to rich dishes. Grapes and pomegranates show up not only as desserts, but also as tart complements to roasted meats.
The most beloved item on the Georgian menu is undoubtedly khachapuri, a rich, cheesy bread that is made with circles of fresh dough cooked with sour, salty suluguni cheese. Sometimes it is topped with a raw egg in the crater.
Around Moscow, there are scores of Georgian restaurants in all price ranges. Sample this delicious food now: you may not have another chance until you get to Tbilisi.
Nowadays, the most exciting trend in Moscow cuisine is the emergence of avtorskaya kukhnya, or 'author cuisine'. As the name implies, young chefs are creating their own brands of cooking, incorporating the best of local and international elements. Seasonal menus highlight local ingredients – a trend that has become more urgent and more creative since the sanctions have been levied on imported food products. Still, cooking techniques, food preparations and flavours are adapted from all over the world, resulting in menus that are innovative, unique – and delightfully delicious.
This fresh take on cooking is on full display at the annual Omnivore Festival (www.omnivoremoscow.ru), which is held over several days in March or April, with master classes, taste testing, eating and drinking, culminating with a giant dinner party.
The culinary revolution has opened up some new options for vegetarians and vegans. Most restaurants now offer at least one vegetarian choice. Additionally, there is no shortage of Indian and Italian restaurants offering meat-free options. During the 40 days before Orthodox Easter (Пасха in Russian), many restaurants offer a Lenten menu that is happily animal-free.
Cook Like a Local
If you love Russian food, you can learn to make it yourself. Taste of Russia offers courses in English, as well as market tours, wine tastings and special children’s classes. Cooking courses take place in the evening, when you prepare the meal, then eat it together.
Need to Know
Many eateries are open noon to midnight daily, sometimes with later hours on Friday and Saturday.
Discounts of up to 25% are sometimes available for dining before 4pm. Alternatively, many places offer a fixed-price ‘business lunch’ during this time. This is a great time to sample some of the pricier restaurants around town.
Most of the top-end restaurants require booking in advance for dinner, as well as for lunch or brunch on weekends.
The standard for tipping in Moscow is 10%, while a slightly smaller percentage is acceptable at more casual restaurants. The service charge is occasionally included in the bill, in which case an additional tip isn’t necessary.
If you pay by credit card, you will not have an opportunity to add the tip onto the charge, so be prepared to leave the tip in cash.
- Moscow Times (https://themoscowtimes.com/places) Reviews for hundreds of restaurants in the capital.
- Menu.ru (www.menu.ru) Listings (in Russian) of menus, maps and other logistical info for hundreds of restaurants, bars and clubs.