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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA

Restaurant Review

French Twist
Since the idea for Maisoncafe on Savvinskaya Embankment first came about, the emphasis has been on the interior design. But chef Charles Lefebvres French cooking is what has people coming back for more.
By Stephen Dewar
Photographs by Luke Tchalenko

Top Moscow architecture and design firm Anno Domini has created the interiors of a number of the citys hottest restaurants, including Boulevard and Noa. Frustrated by always implementing other peoples ideas, last year the principals decided to open their own restaurant. They knew just the place: the ground floor of a former silk factory built by well-known 19th century architect Roman Kline. The building overlooks the Moscow River from its prime location on the embankment. It has also housed Anno Dominis offices for years.

It was not that they didnt like their clients tastes and preferences, explains Anno Domini architect Elena Karlina; they wanted to create a space that reflected their own views. Many of Anno Dominis clients, for example, want strong, vibrant colors, and these architects and designers saw the need for something different. Their concept for Maisoncafe became more focused after a visit to the redeveloped Docklands district in London.

Upon returning from Europe, the Anno Domini team set to work designing an understated yet very tasteful space, with off-white walls and a sort of postop- art floor scheme consisting of black stripes on white like a zebra skin with curves and bends. It sounds odd but is remarkably successful. The almost bland effect of these creams, whites and blacks is subtly counter-pointed by the dark blue napery and the gray upholstered chairs. The overall effect is soothing and warm. High ceilings and good spacing between tables ensures a comfortable and airy atmosphere.

Inside, the restaurant seats 70, and the same number can occupy a simple, raised wooden terrace that opened last month.

A restaurant, of course, is primarily about food, however agreeable the surroundings. Anno Domini brought in as head chef, presiding over a total of 18 other chefs, the exceptionally talented 31-year-old Charles Lefebvre, a native of the Loire valley in France and the child of a prodigiously gifted family of chefs, including his father and both grandmothers. Before coming to Moscow in January of this year, Charles was the private executive chef to a Middle Eastern prince in his countrys embassy in Paris. Prior to that he picked up a top reputation, as well as numerous awards, in South Africa, Switzerland and Monte Carlo, having earlier trained under some of Frances top chefs in Paris and elsewhere.

In keeping with the intentions of Anno Domini, that the restaurant should be homey and up-to-date without being pretentious, Charles has devised a menu that will please everyone. Classic French dishes, not tied to any one region of France, dominate the menu. But, responding to modern tastes and the interests of customers, Charles has, as he puts it, modernized many of them, for instance by reducing the amount of rich sauces or cream traditionally used in some dishes. Deliberately, Charles says, this is not a restaurant striving to achieve the ultimate in haute cuisine. This is a restaurant where good cooking for pleasurable eating dominates. But this doesnt mean standards are sloppy. Far from it. Charles, who considers himself a perfectionist, loves to go to the market to see what fresh goods are available, which often inspires him to create and offer new dishes. However, much of their produce is flown in twice-weekly from France the lobsters, fine de claire oysters, crabs, beef, cheeses and so forth. The Parma ham, of course, comes from Italy.

Right now, for example, starters and salads include a classic salade nicoise (440 rubles), half-a-dozen oysters (650 rubles) and a wide variety of other choices. For main courses, the escalope of veal (650 rubles) is popular, as is a traditional French sausage dish, endouillette (590 rubles). Or if you prefer fish, try the delectable sea bass in foil (780 rubles) or salmon with asparagus and sorrel sauce (580 rubles).

Although the impressive wine list has been selected by the Russian sommelier and includes not just French, but other European and New World wines, Charles is not chauvinistic about this. South African wines are wonderful, he says, for example, remembering fondly his five years in Cape Town where he still has a house.

Fluent in English and with good Italian, as well as his native French, Charles is making good progress with Russian, no doubt helped by his obvious commitment to everything he does. He has been world champion in clay pigeon (skeet) shooting, though how he found time to do this while working at his cooking 80- 100 hours a week is a mystery. He also loves golf, skiing, hunting and sailing. No wonder, therefore, that he is still single and unattached theres just no time.

Maisoncafe has already established a loyal following with up to 200 customers a day. The clientele includes both Russians and foreigners, including many French expats. Some are so dedicated that they come for three meals a day, arriving up to an hour before the restaurant opens at 10:00am and sitting patiently until the kitchen opens for breakfast, for which there is a simple and enticing menu, then returning at lunchtime and again for dinner in the evening. There can surely be no higher praise for a restaurant than repeat business of that sort.

Average cost of a three-course meal is $40- $50. Wine starts at around $30 a bottle. Open 10:00am to 6:00am. 12 Savvinskaya Naberezhnaya, building 8. For reservations, call 246 3240.

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