Na Zdorovie! Feasting like a Tsar in Moscow, Russia

At the heart of Russian hospitality is a table laden with generous portions of homemade dishes like piroshki, borscht, picked herring, pelmeni, and syrniki along with full-to-the-brim shot glasses of tummy-warming vodka. Perhaps my favourite meal of all is a blinchik (crepe batter swirled in a skillet until it’s a paper-thin round) that is lined with spoonfuls of red caviar, dollops of sour cream, and a sprinkle of chopped dill. Rolled-up, this indulgence is perfectly accompanied by a glass a Russian bubbly or champagne.

A blinchik with sour cream, caviar, and dill made by my husband

A blinchik with sour cream, caviar, and dill made by my husband last Russian Xmas.

Celebrating the New Year in Russia often means feasting on a family-style buffet of gastronomic delights; the chilly outside temperatures making carb-and-cream-rich foods, smoked fish, and pickled side dishes all the more palatable (and desirable). Historically,  Moscovites subsisted on a diet of locally sourced foods though overseas influences led Moscow to earn the reputation as a “city of gourmands”:

“Sumptuous banquets had a legendary status in the annals of Moscow. It was not unusual for 200 separate dishes to be presented at a meal. (Yet) sumptuous eating of this sort was a relatively new phenomenon. The food of 17th century Muscovy had been plain and simple – the entire repertory consisting of fish, boiled meats, pancakes, bread and pies, garlic, onion, cucumbers and radishes, cabbages and beetroot… It was not until the 18th century that more interesting foods and culinary techniques were imported from abroad: butter, cheese and sour cream, smoked meats and fish, pastry cooking, salads and green vegetables, tea and coffee, chocolates, ice cream, wines, and liqueurs. Although seen as the most Russian part of any meal (caviar, sturgeon, vodka), the classic zakuski (hors-d’oeuvres), such as fish in aspic, were not in fact invented until the early 19th century.”*

Note: such a standard for eating was not only reserved for courtiers; provincial families also enjoyed a healthy intake, and the gentry households could spend a whole day in a ‘chain of meals’, as described by the Russian poet, Pushkin.

credit: tsar-project.ru

Credit: tsar-project.ru

TIPS FOR TRAVELERS

For the Moscow-bound traveler, consuming Russia’s passion for food brings a different dimension to experiencing the cosmopolitan city: it delves deeper into the cultural; it makes one ponder food’s historical significance; it offers a greater understanding of the locals’ way of life. Stopping at a food kiosk and sitting down to a traditional Russian restaurant meal are, in my opinion, absolute musts when visiting this fascinating city and country.

Language

For the non-Russian speaking tourist, seeking out traditional foods is a little daunting given Cyrillic is one of the hardest languages to read, let alone comprehend and speak. I can understand why a traveler would stop to eat at one of the many sushi spots (there’s even a Nobu Moscow), or at (the growing number of) American food outlets like Shake Shack, Papa Beard’s, Subway, Le Pain Quotidien, Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, Johnny Rockets… even Cinnabon— their food options are familiar, served in the safety net of a recognisable interior.

The truth is that many Russian restaurants do cater to the English speaker, and asking for a translated menu is the first step to overcoming the fear of not being able to converse in the local language. The result of making this effort is dining on a closer-to-authentic meal that satisfies that sense of curiousity for the new and different — one of the very reasons we travel in the first place.

Perhaps the sister deli to Manhattan's "Moscow on the Hudson".

Perhaps the sister deli to Manhattan’s “Moscow on the Hudson”.

An example of a Russian-English menu. This one is from "Prokukti" (transl: "Products") -- a cafe on Red October island.

An example of a Russian-English menu. This one is from “Produkti” — a cafe on the site of the former Red October chocolate factory.

I was fascinated with Russian food during my time in Moscow, especially while browsing the well-stocked shelves of local foodstuffs. Some of my favourite times were spent in supermarkets, or gastronoms, lusting over freshly baked breads and pastry treats, rows of fresh and tinned fish, reams of boxed chocolates, and mouth-watering arrays of cold cuts and cheeses.

Pastry filled goodies at Azbuka Vkusa (Alphabet of Taste supermarket) -- first two include baked cottage cheese; the last, roulette with poppy seed, was one of my favourites.

Pastry filled goodies at Azbuka Vkusa (Alphabet of Taste, a gourmet supermarket) — first two include a baked cottage cheese filling; the last, roulette with poppy seed, was one of my favourites.

Below is a rough guide to foodie recommendations and a bite of what you could expect on a trip to Moscow. A helpful hint: do a little research prior to your trip and learn the names of key Russian dishes. Choose to dine in a Russian restaurant and, in the absence of a translated menu, gather up all your courage and request a few of those dishes that intrigued you in that pre-trip research.  Place any worries aside: You aren’t the first traveler daunted by the Russian language … nor the last!

Na Zdorovie! — “to your health”, and S Novim Godom! – “Happy New Year!”

May you indulge in gastronomic delights and delicacies as you see in a  prosperous 2014!

~~~

Zakuski, or starters

Smoked fish like trout, and herring pickled in a mix of vinegar, peppercorns, and sliced raw onions are essential zakuski.

Seafood at Smolensky Gastronom

Seafood at Smolensky Gastronom

Octopus, sardines, and more seafood at Smolensky Gastronom.

Octopus, sardines, and more seafood at Smolensky Gastronom.

Cheese, cold cuts, and black bread are served at breakfast; also as appetizers.

Pesto Cheese  at the forefront. In the Smolensky Gastronom.

Pesto Cheese at the forefront. In the Smolensky Gastronom.

Jamon Iberico surrounded by salami and jerky. In Smolensky Gastronom.

Jamon Iberico surrounded by salami and jerky. In Smolensky Gastronom.

Main Dishes

Beef Stroganoff: dating back to the Imperial years, this dish was prepared for tsars and gained its name from either Baron Alexander Stroganov in the early 1800s or Count Pavel Stroganov.

Beef Stroganoff wish a side of mashed potatoes is to the left of this image. Prepared at the Swissotel Krasny Holmy.

Beef Stroganoff with a side of mashed potatoes is to the left of this image. Prepared at the Swissotel Krasnye Holmy hotel.

Pelmeni — these are boiled minced meat dumplings and very tasty when dipped in a mixture of smetana (sour cream) and khren (horseradish).

Pelmeni from Swissotel Krasny Holmy restaurant, Acapella

Pelmeni from Swissotel Krasnye Holmy restaurant, Acapella

Frozen pemleni sold by the bag at Smolensky Gastronom.

Frozen pelmeni are commonly sold by the bag. This photo taken at Smolensky Gastronom.

Piroshki — pie-like buns that, when bitten, reveal savoury fillings such as meat, or cabbage, or fish, or mashed potato with mushroom. A snack that I fully indulged in during Moscow’s wintry days.

Take the opportunity to stop at a kiosk, where the food is cheap and tasty.

Take the opportunity to stop at a kiosk, where the food is cheap and tasty.

Blinchiki are pancakes/crepes and tastiest when filled with the luxury that is black sturgeon caviar — Ossetra, Beluga or Sevruga — or red salmon caviar, along with sour cream. Roll the crepe up and enjoy to the pops of salt mixed with creamy-sour goodness.

Soups, Salads, and Sides

Pickled sides can include mushrooms, cabbage, cucumbers, and/or tomatoes.

You'll noticed pickled mushrooms in this spread of black caviar, cold cuts, and carrot juice (meant to be mixed with cream).

You’ll noticed pickled mushrooms in this spread that centres around the black caviar. In the background are cold cuts. Right: carrot juice (meant to be mixed with cream). At Bochka restaurant.

Borscht — a soup painted red for its chopped beetroot; made with shredded cabbage, carrots, chopped potatoes, and even meat. The soup below contained lingon and/or cranberries giving it a slightly sour-tart taste.

Borscht topped with dill, from Botchka restaurant.

Borscht topped with dill, from Bochka restaurant.

Hailing from France is the popular Salat Olivier, a mayonnaise-based concoction of diced ham or chicken, eggs, carrots, potatoes, and pickles. It’s best enjoyed with a few slices of black bread. (I didn’t try it on this trip).

Desserts and baked goods

Croissants and cappuccinos — the French and Italian influence is alive and well. Mum and I couldn’t resist dining at this outpost of Le Pain, located on the old Arbat.

yes, we succumbed to the treats at Le Pain Quotidien

Yes, we succumbed to the treats at the international chain, Le Pain Quotidien.

Syrniki — these fluffy fried cheese pancakes are made of cottage cheese and egg; topped with sour cream, jam, and/or honey.

Syrniki from Swissotel Krasnye Holmy restaurant, Acapella

Syrniki from Swissotel Krasnye Holmy restaurant, Acapella

Vatrushka — pastry marked with a middle of hearty baked cottage cheese (sometimes includes raisins).

Sochnik — pastry folded around cottage cheese.

Cottage Cheese ring (top left), piroshki (bottom)

Cottage Cheese pastries on the top shelf, and piroshki along the bottom.

Moscow dining and foodie recommendations:

Bochka restaurant — for traditional Russian food. Also owners of the oft-reviewed Café Pushkin. http://www.vbochke.ru

Acapella Restaurant, Swissotel Krasnye Holmy Hotel — an excellent Russian set menu. http://www.swissotel.com/hotels/moscow/dining

Shokoladnitsa — seems to be modeled after Max Brenner, it’s easy for travelers to select from a menu of salads, pancakes, desserts and coffee. http://www.shoko.ru

Azbuka Vkusa —  translated as “Alphabet of Taste”, this is chain of gourmet, pricey supermarkets located across Moscow. Open 24 hours.

Smolensky Gastronom – a well-stocked gourmet supermarket located on the Old Arbat, close to the entrance of the Smolensky metro.

Produkti Cafe and Bar — translated as “Products”, a name usually reserved for grocery stores, this is a hip dining spot on the island that housed the former site of Krasny Oktyabr’ (Red October Chocolate Factory).

Sign for "Produkti".

Sign for “Produkti”.

*Natasha’s Dance by Orlando Figues

Notes:

–Many restaurants in Russia cater to smokers so ask for the non-smoking section if this is your preference.

–Tipping is at the diner’s discretion though it’s advisable to leave around a 10% tip as gratuities make up the bulk of the waitstaff’s wages.

–Lent takes place during March and April and this may mean some places serve fish instead of meat, and no dairy, eggs, milk and cheese. But in Western hotels and restaurants, this shouldn’t be an issue.

I didn't leave Moscow without buying some chocolates made by Red October Chocolate Factory.

I didn’t leave Moscow without buying some chocolates made by Red October Chocolate Factory.

27 thoughts on “Na Zdorovie! Feasting like a Tsar in Moscow, Russia

  1. You make me want to go back to Russia! What I wouldn’t do for a big bowl of pelmeni…
    I found the Cyrillic alphabet wasn’t too difficult and learning a few words for different foods made eating out at Russian restaurants much easier. And you’re right, so many places have English translations of the menu now anyway!

    • Great to read from you! I want to go back to Russia too 🙂 Do you have a Russian supermarket near your home? They usually sell the pelmeni frozen, which are so easy to prepare — just boil them and make sure to have some sour cream (and soy sauce or horseradish) on hand. So happy to have brought back some memories for you. When’s the next trip?

    • Thank you! Lovely to read from a native Russian. I agree — Russian cuisine needs to come to the forefront soon. Seems that Moscow has embraced many foreign restaurants so seeking out good food is a good challenge!

  2. Pingback: Sydney Bakers Recipe used in his Restaurant Sydney’s : Beef Stroganoff | Stephen Darori on Family Recipes and Cooking

    • Thanks, Karen, I am so glad to have shared this post. I hope you get to Moscow, or another part of Russia. Being immersed in history and the Russian soul while traveling with mum was what I needed. The experience has left a lovely imprint 🙂

  3. Marina, I’m fascinated. Do you know any good Russian restaurants in New York City, particularly in Manhattan? I would like to try some Russian food.

    Have a very happy 2014, you and your husband.

    I have never had any Russian cheese but would like to try some – – perhaps in a restaurant along with some Russian wine.

    • Dear Gerard, Thank you! I think you’ll enjoy good Russian food. Now, in NYC, I went to Firebird, which was quite opulent. I never went to Petrossian but the NY building is so beautiful and I am sure you’ll dine on some fine caviar. I have researched about Russian restaurants recently and regarding NY have read about Brasserie Pushkin (sister restaurant of Moscow’s famous Cafe Pushkin) and Mari Vanna, which has outposts in LA and NY as well as Moscow. I would check those out. Brighton Beach, although far from Manhattan, has supermarkets, and piroshki for sale curbside. There’s a good, cute country-style restaurant there that serves provincial food but it’s quite a noisy and perhaps too far to travel to. Please let me know how you get along with it. You can usually view menus online so if you have any questions on particular dishes, do let me know. Enjoy and I wish you the very best in 2014!

    • Thank you Cornelia. My husband is Persian and said the same thing about the salad as his sister makes it often. It was named after a French chef I believe, who used to cook for Russian families. It’s a popular dish around the world it seems. I hope you are well and have a wonderful New Year!

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