Back to the Future
Text Charles W. Borden
I never expected to enter the building at Tsvetnoy Bulvar 30 again, even if a restaurant should open in the space once briefly occupied by the Doug Steele Steak House, the center of a business meltdown that left a number of expat and Russian investors holding their heads. When I got a call and an invite from publisher John Ortega to check out the new restaurant at that location, which bears the name - ?, I refused. But the next day, I yielded after hearing John’s raves about the work of Chef Vincenzo Gugielmi. John arranged a Passport staff meeting at ? followed the next night by a Mediterranean wine tasting.
Athough there is still no sign on the street, and the restaurant is no easier to find than the “Steakhouse,” being set back as it is behind a large gate, the entrance and first floor of the building are now re-done and ready for business. There were even noskid strips on the once slippery tile entry stairway. Upstairs, little has changed from the previous incarnation. Gone are the books from the heavy, dark wooden bookshelves, and the walls are now garnished with dozens of photographs of Sophia Loren and Marilyn Monroe. A large, but currently fishless aquarium occupies the center of the restaurant. The space still has the luxurious, gent’s club feel that the Steakhouse had, with its dark brown, lushly upholstered leather chairs and dark wood trim.
Italian Chef Vincenzo Gugielmi greeted us warmly and stayed to discuss his kitchen and cuisine. Vincenzo hails from Bari, Italy, on the Adriatic coast in the Apulia (Puglia) region. Like many Italian chefs, his mother was his first teacher and he was already an accomplished cook by the age of 15. Vincenzo has traveled the world as a chef, or as he says, a “hotel chef” in Singapore, Kuwait, Puerto Vallerta, and Egypt among other places.
The core of the Passport crew was gathered for an adventure in dining: George Voloshin, Anna Kulyagina, Linda Lippner and Andrey Vodenikov, myself and Passport Publisher Ortega. Although the wine list is spare, there were some good selections. John is partial to Amarone, so he was happy to find Villabella Amarone 2001 and it was so tasty that we made our way through several bottles. Amarone is made from grapes that are allowed to dry for several months to concentrate sugar and flavors and later aged for several years in oak barrels.
Once the wine was set and orders placed, Vincenzo sent out his “complement of the Chef,” mussels sitting in their shell with a cream sauce and served with arugula and bread slices with olive oil. My starter was Chessboard of Tuna and King Fish with Greek Tzatziki Salad (430r), a beautiful set of square inches of red tuna and white kingfish laid out like a chessboard, each square dabbed with a light sauce of citrus and sea urchin essence. The tender pieces of very fresh fish were delightful. Linda ordered the Carpaccio of Herbed Marinated Beef (480r), which she said was “very light and delicate with a mild sauce of honey grain mustard dressing.”
John started with the Tartare of Lightly Steamed Prawns served on a Blend of Green Peas & Anchovies with Crispy Leeks (950r) and also King Crab Chunks in Almond Crust served on a Confit of Cherry Tomatoes and Crispy Streaked Bacon (1,230r). I snatched a taste of each. The thinly shaved crispy leeks were well matched with the mound of diced, fresh shrimp below. The sections of soft King crab were generous, and the firm, smoky and crispy lengths bacon drew me into ordering this appetizer the next night at our wine tasting.
For dinner, I ordered the Tagliatelle in Roasted Bell Pepper and Hazelnut Sauce, served with Pata Negra Ham and Burrata (930r). The tagliatelle was perfectly cooked, a solid base for the nutty flavor combination of the pepper and hazelnut, and the creamy sections of Burrata cheese. John had already tried the Home made Pappardelle with Braised Lamb Shank (700r), and recommended it around the table. This consists of a large piece of lamb on the bone, placed upright on a bed of Pappardelle with the creamy sauce.
Linda ordered Grilled Lamb Chops served with Gratinated Lasagna with Burrata and Mint & Chili Pesto (1,050r) which she described as “delicate and melt in your mouth lamb chops; easy for a “lady” to pick them up and get every little morsel off the bone!”
We don’t often have room for desserts, but a few of the Passport staff managed. Linda picked a Parfait served on Pineapple Compote with Coconut Crème Brule. “A very nice crispy Creme Brule, perfect with the fresh pineapple compote and the vanilla ice cream.” We all managed a Limoncello to close the evening.”
This visit was Dejà vu with a few familiar faces in the background. I was glad to see that the Russian investors in the previous incarnation had managed to recoup something through ownership of the current restaurants. Like the previous management, they are fortunate to have a great chef. We have yet to try the Asian restaurant downstairs, and I won’t object too strongly if John wants to go back.