Moscow’s Magnificent Garden Of Eatin’
Tucked away in the tranquil botanical gardens just off busy Prospect Mira, three restaurants offer Muscovites a welcome respite from the frantic pace of city life.
By Eric Baum
Moscow’s teeming nightlife now offers almost every imaginable type of fine dining, theater and pulsating club experience found in the most desirable European capitals. But there is one sensation in this megalopolis of some 12 million that remains in short supply: serenity.
The garden’s reflecting pool with Ogorod in background.
One of the few quiet spots in Moscow’s densely populated center is the sizeable Aptekasky Ogorod botanical garden, tucked away between shabby apartment buildings and a modern glass-encased office complex on Prospect Mira. Walking the carefully maintained paths through the foliage that explodes into summertime purple and green is a rejuvenating break from the pressure of Moscow. But the delicate scene can also be experienced on three outdoor restaurant terraces where the garden plays an integral part in unusual and distinct dining experiences. This is summer and the latest wave is dining on the garden.
Moscow restaurateur and political kingmaker Alexei Sitnikov said his idea to open Birds and Fishes and Ogorod, both on the Prospect Mira side of the garden, came about as a sort of happy accident. The eateries differ in atmosphere and menu, but share a common symbiotic relationship with the nearby blossoming garden: the restaurants contribute funds for security and groundkeepers and the garden helps to attract customers.
Birds and Fishes has the feel of a Cuban establishment with multi-level whitewashed outdoor dining terraces and hearty food. (The upper deck is cigar friendly.) Branches studded with blossoms stray over the lower rail where attentive waiters serve a fine list of international wines and Russian food, like hot vareniki, a kind of dumpling packed with cherries or raspberries, served with fresh cream. The hearty entrees, like chicken breast with curry in caramel sauce and baked trout with vegetables are reasonably priced and the leisurely ambiance leaves time to savor the change of colors during late sunsets.
Nearby Ogorod, which opened in 2002, turns its minimalist design effort inward toward a cavernous dining area accented with rustic furniture and a small stage for folk and classical music. The garden takes center stage by providing a natural landscape behind a two-story framework of plate-glass windows. Ivy growing along the interior leaves diners feeling as though they are in a terrarium. In summer, though, the most prized seats at Ogorod are on the deck on the edge of the garden. The main fare includes variations on heavy Russian pancakes with mushrooms, ham and cheese baked in butter. A number of large green salads with meat and seafood also grace the menu. On weekend nights, young Russians pack Ogorod, giving it more of a party atmosphere.
Relaxing on the deck of Ogorod.
Around the corner on Grokholsky Pereulok, Sitnikov opened Madame Galife, an upscale Russian interpretation of a French bistro with a basement Reggae bar. The upstairs dining room exudes an easy European chic ambiance and features conspicuously placed works by local artists without appearing contrived or heavy-handed. It also offers countryside food – ribs, shashlyk, steaks and fish – at reasonable prices.
On the surface, Sitnikov’s restaurants offer a rare opportunity in Moscow to commune with nature and enjoy a good bottle of wine – but this is Russia and there is always another story lurking beneath the surface.
Listening to Sitnikov describe his unlikely beginnings in the restaurant business between sips of fresh carrot juice on the quiet terrace at Birds and Fishes is like receiving a history lesson in the brutalities of political life following the demise of the Soviet Union. Sitnikov, 42, came to Moscow from Siberia in 1989 and founded Image-Contact, a political research group now employing more than 500 analysts. The company is credited with propelling some of Russia’s most influential politicians and businessmen into power, but Sitnikov flatly refuses to discuss any of his clients.
In the early days of Sitnikov’s career, newly founded Russian consulting groups aggressively vied for a piece of President Boris Yeltsin’s burgeoning political war chest. Aggressive business rivalries turned to violence and some consultants paid with their lives. "Competitors started to shoot each other – literally," Sitnikov said. "I needed to arrange an infrastructure where we could communicate."
The solution, he decided, was to found a private club, Petrovich, where rivalries could be settled in an amiable venue. "We started to sign some agreements on ethical standards and the next step was to found a club where we could meet each other without ties." The club, founded in 1997, remains one of Moscow’s hottest nightspots where crowds of all ages and nationalities pack the underground bar and dance to Russian music into the wee hours.
One of Ogorod’s refreshing summer salads.
Restaurant life agreed with Sitnikov, who has since backed six other dining spots, including Birds and Fishes, Ogorod and Madame Galife. The main reason for opening restaurants throughout the city is networking for Image-Contact. "It just happened," he said demurely.
The restaurant business is also a way to repay the city that has helped make him rich. Sitnikov says many of the proceeds from his establishments on Prospect Mira are used to keep the garden in shape. The botanical garden, which was founded in 1706 by Peter the Great as an apothecary resource for Moscow’s most prestigious university, slipped into disrepair when the Soviet Union collapsed. "We spend a lot of time and money just to make this park like it is," he said. "Five years ago it was a garbage dump, and now it’s one of the most beautiful places in Moscow."
Birds and Fishes is at 30 Prospect Mira, korpus 2, Tel. 280 2801; Ogorod is 28 Prospect Mira, Tel. 280 2833.