Bonus Intra – Melior Exi
Text Charles W. Borden
Photos Alexei Zhukov
Observatoire, longtime Moscow expat and serial restaurateur Paul O’Brien’s latest luxury nightspot, is located at the entrance to the glitzy Copernic building, which faces the President Hotel from the north. Builders claim that the Copernic is the first “intellectual” building that provides its elitny residents with a state-of-the-art online system to control every aspect of their apartment’s environment. The building facade and entrance reflect the kind of neo-Stalinist style currently popular in the city, with design elements derived from classic astronomical instruments. The building website (www.kopernik.ru) has a panoramic photo of the restaurant. Observatoire has the status of a private club, but Paul O’Brien assured us that Passport readers could easily arrange a reservation with a call to the restaurant (tell them Passport sent you).
French-born chef Michel Lauga has many years experience in Moscow, beginning with work in 1990 with Potel & Chabot caterers at the Hotel Mezhdunarodnaya, followed by the Hotel Metropol, the Radisson, Restaurant El Dorado, the Grand Opera Restaurant and Cabaret on Petrovka, Capri, Matisse, and finally Uley. His career started at Restaurant Taillevent, a three–Michelin- star Paris icon, and at the one-Michelin-star Restaurant Jacqueline Fenix.
Paul recently closed Uley, which was a truly innovative restaurant in Moscow at the time it opened, and he also sold Uncle Guilly’s, Moscow’s first steakhouse. As a savvy restaurateur, Paul knows “when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em,” what with the short mojo half-life of luxury restaurants in Moscow (and elsewhere). Paul’s other restaurants include the three Starlite diners he has brought to Moscow, an American-style standard that is highly popular with young cosmopolitan Russians and expat and Russian business negotiators alike.
We were served a chef-selected assortment of starters: goat cheese lightly coated with paprika, salmon skewers topped with a touch of dill laid on a cube of pineapple, and a tender piece of braised eel served over shredded laminaria seaweed with sesame seeds. This was topped off with one of Paul’s favorites, a generous piece of foie gras with course salt and tamarillo, served on toast with a burned sugar-porto sauce. To this, also at Paul’s suggestion, we added the goat cheese castle with basil, sundried fruits, and orange chutney.
By the time we ordered, pleased with the foie gras, I couldn’t resist ordering the pumpkin crème soup with foie gras slices, lightly spiced, which was generous with the foie gras and soft pumpkin seeds. For the main course, I selected white tuna with provencal garnish: several firm, buttery pieces of “white tuna,” lightly broiled and served with eggplant, zucchini, and avocado. Although I did not clarify this at the restaurant, “white tuna” is apparently not the light albacore tuna used in canning, but a mackerel also known as butterfish or escolar.
It is always difficult to keep track of the orders of other guests, but I paid attention when I saw a fellow diner order of bobby veal with pineapple chutney and horseradish. The name prompted a discussion of spelling mistakes in menus, but a dinner companion who also happened to be a chef pointed out that “bobby” was correct, an Australian and New Zealand term that refers to veal from young calves of dairy cows.
We also tried several of the sides including purple artichoke with sundried tomatoes and pan-fried baby potatoes. Though we first refused dessert, several diners eventually yielded to suggestions of the mascarpone soup with chocolate sorbet, a marvelous combination of tastes, and wildberry sabayon with rose water sorbet.
Observatoire is an exquisite new fine dining restaurant in Moscow, run by a chef who knows Moscow taste well, and operated by Paul O’Brien and his partners. Each page of the Observatoire menu finishes with a Latin expression, translated to Russian. The menu opens with “Bonus Intra – Melior Exi” or “Come in good – go out better,” which I think fairly describes the feeling at the table when we departed.