Tunisian Tide – Second Wave
Text and photos by Charles W. Borden
La Maree, which in my book already sits at or near the crest of the Moscow restaurant wave, just edged further up with the opening of its majestic digs on Malaya Gruzinskaya in the building formerly occupied by the Indian restaurant Ajanta. I dined at Ajanta for the first and last time just before it closed and was awestruck by the setting with its lofty open spaces, its tasteful mélange of earth tones and quality finish. I’d love to know where they got the floor tiles in the entry. It doesn’t appear Tunisian owner Medhi Douss had to do much to transform the space for his needs: some rosy octopuses climbing the restaurant’s decorative columns, some fish on the wall, some fancy sea-theme artwork, a lobster tank at the entrance and La Maree Two was open. And of course there’s the La Maree centerpiece, its seafood market featuring Douss’ fresh-off-the-plane seafood. Some of these delicacies got to enjoy a little air travel to Moscow before a La Maree chef pulled them out of the tank to administer the last rites.
We reviewed the first La Maree just a few months ago. When I heard Mr. Douss had moved into the Ajanta space I was itching to try it. And as impressed as we had been with La Maree #1, the new La Maree makes it look dated. Mr. Douss runs a huge seafood and food import operation supplying Moscow with up to 100 tons of fresh and live seafood every week, as well as cheeses, duck, foie gras and olive oil. Take a look at the English language version of his website ( www.lamaree. ru) to get an idea about how the market works. Both La Maree locations also operate as a fresh-fish-take-home boutique.
Passport publisher John Ortega brought some new guests: Morrocan clothing businessman Albert Ifrah, who grew up in Paris but now lives in Valence in southern France, and Consuelo De Haviland, who grew up in Manhattan and Limoges (central France) where her family has produced fine porcelain since the mid nineteenth century. Ms. De Haviland now shares her time between Paris and Moscow as a result of her marriage to legendary Russian actor Igor Kostolevsky. A French film actress herself, the story of her life journey to Russia leading to her current work representing the Russian railways in France is worth a separate article.
Chef Abdessatar Zitouni now runs both restaurants and brought the same menu to #2 with its Mediterranean and Tunisian specialties. As we did a few months ago we started with Zitouni’s Bouillabaisse, the Marseillaise fish stew, this version a rich dark ochre with a rich assortment of Mediterranean shellfish and fish. And as before, John, a serious Pacific fisherman in his Newport Beach years, selected an array of sea delights for La Plancha, which were grilled and served unadorned. Fish prices ranged from 170 rubles to 720 rubles per 100 grams.
This time John also ordered a sashimi assortment, which, if I have ever had fresher or better I surely don’t remember. The tray, with each selection priced per 100 grams, consisted of Scottish salmon (530r), deep red akamai (630r) and fatty toro (1260r) from Bluefin tuna, thinly sliced, sweet and delicately tender sea scallops (470r), and octopus (430r).
La Maree has an excellent wine list, mostly whites. We ordered the Cervaro Castello della Sala (Umbria, Italy), an Antinori wine that is primarily Chardonnay with a touch (15%) of Grechetto. Priced at 8700 rubles at La Maree, this wine has become a wine list index for me; it seems to appear on most Moscow wine lists. It’s a great wine, no argument there, and can be bought by the case for as little as 2100 rubles a bottle in Moscow. I doubt La Maree or any other restaurant pays more, so we see here a markup in excess of 400%. I’ve seen Cervaro as high as 9900 rubles. At each restaurant, the sommelier give the same lame excuse when asked why the prices are so high, “Oh, the taxes and import costs are so high.” Well, we know better, and so do you.