My guests for dinner at Cafe des Artistes restaurant were Len Prince, the New York photographer, and Jason Paulson, pop artist. Len has been here for the week on assignment for a US travel magazine, photographing the people and places of Moscow, and Jason has been taking pictures of traffic signs and casino lights, in preparation for an exhibition.
Len looked around at the decor: “It’s appropriately named. It’s art nouveau in small quantities, with faux finish, fresco ceiling.” Jason added that, “You could think it’s pretentious, but it’s not, it’s casual.”
The bread basket was brought to the table, neatly covered in white linen; inside was a selection of black, and white breads and rolls; on the table there were four pots of flavoured butter – tomatoes, parsley, dill and luniper berries.
The menu was written in perfect English (and in French where necessary – delice, for example, spelled correctly); a small point but it says that the management and the chef know what they are doing. When I read a menu with mangled English I always get nervous about what’s coming out of the kitchen.
We talked about their impressions of Moscow: “I will never get used to the money,” said Len, “and the language is impenetrable,” added Jason.” He was very happy when the maitre d’ spoke English with him.
But I wanted to know if Moscow was what they had been expecting? Len’s reply was instant: “No, I was expecting everybody to be somehow depressed, and I wasn’t expecting to see so much wealth.” I asked him what Moscow was like as a city to photograph? “It’s so homogenous, in New York there are so many nationalities, so many colours, here you have massed crowds, and they’re all the same; I’m not so happy about the reasons for that though.”
Our hors d’oeuvres arrived: cream of spinach soup for me – fresh and creamy, with identifiable strands of spinach floating around. Len said that the cherry tomato and mozzarella salad was exactly as it should be, with crisp cherry tomatoes, sun dried tomatoes, dressed with basil and chives, and balsamic vinegar. “And mine’s just as good,” said Jason, with the asparagus and avocado salad.
We discussed the photographs on the wall, by Jean-Baptiste Huyn: Len, speaking with some knowledge of the subject, gave a blunt summary of his opinion: “Mapplethorpe, only not as good. And I wouldn’t have tried to hide the picture wire making it that flesh colour, I’d have gone for black wire.”
The service was attentive and unobtrusive, and the waiters didn’t try to distract us with a big show when the main courses arrived, on large white plates. Len had gone for the fancy option: Fillet of saddle and chop of lamb with Roesti potatoes. The lamb had been ordered rare, and the chop was just that, but the medallions were “a little over;” the red wine sauce, however, was “out of this world.” I asked what were the Roesti potatoes like? “You mean the gourmet hash browns? Delicious.”
‘I could have used a steak knife,” said Jason, cutting into his fillet of beef. “It’s not the meat that’s the problem, but the table knife’s a bit blunt.” The presentation of all three main courses was absolutely classic French – at once artful and symmetrical. Jason’s vegetables – courgettes, artichokes, carrots, colrabi – were all cut very small, and looked as if they had been put together by an interior designer, although the peas looked a little wrinkled.
The restaurant was now almost full on the ground floor (there is a larger second floor). There was a mix of clients: four gay Russian professionals behind us, drinking aperitifs and tea; I like it that you can come into a restaurant, and just sit there with friends, with no pressure to eat. To one side there was a table of six young Russians; we heard them talk about advertising clients. In the far corner four elderly Americans, dressed in smart casual: Len was closest to them: “They’re from San Francisco, I can tell … people who’ve had a chance to rethink their lives. They’re laid back.”
I said that we had to try the puddings. We liked the sound of ‘Fresh strawberries to your wish,’ we tried to think of how many things you can do with a strawberry, quite a lot – my guests, as you would expect, are not without imagination; “I want my strawberries in the nude,” said Jason, but what the restaurant actually offers is strawberries with cream, with ice cream... So we wished instead for apple strudel with ice cream, Toblerone parfait and chocolate truffle tart.
Len asked us to try the strudel. “They made it today, the apples are moist, they’ve got that slightly tart flavour.” Our puddings were presented with flair; my parfait looked like wedges of toblerone, too sweet for me, but I liked the marinated strawberries sitting in a basket of nut caramel. Jason was not so enthusiastic about his choice: “It seems like a slice of cake to me, it’s a mousse, a tart is more like a pastry.”
It was 11pm; three Germans came in, dressed in suits, followed by two English girls (living in Moscow, talking about landlord problems); some young Russian boys were sitting at the bar, chatting with the barman, obviously a friend; it was an informal, relaxed atmosphere, and we could have been in Brussels, or Milan, anywhere in Europe.
There was no pressure to leave after we had paid the bill, and as we sat there talking about how the snow in Moscow’s streets changed the way Len angled his pictures – he has to think about shadows much more than in other cities – we were served with glasses of Amor Lemoncello, on the house. We could have stayed there longer, but my guests were leaving the next day.
“I’d come back.” said Len, as we got our coats.
“To Moscow or the restaurant?”
If you would like to know more about my guests, please visit them at:
www.lenprince.com and www.jasonpaulson.com
WHAT WE ATE
Cream of spinach soup
Cherry Tomato and Mozzarella
Cherry tomatoes with fresh Mozzarella, basil, lemon, and cols-pressed olive oil.
Delice of green asparagus and avocado
Fresh green asparagus, avocado, mesclun lettuce with balsamico vinaigrette.
Entrecote Cafe de Paris
Sirloin steak (certified Australian Angus Beef) with green butter and French fried potatoes.
Fillet of beef with red wine sauce
Grilled fillet of beef (certified US Prime Beef) with red wine sauce, vegetables and croquette potatoes.
Fillet of saddle and chop of lamb with Roesti potatoes
Sauteed, sliced fillet of saddle and chop of lamb, with sweet pepper, red wine sauce and Roesti potatoes.
Toblerone parfait with marinated strawberries
Chocolate truffle tart
WHAT WE DRANK
Castelgreve, Chianti Classico, 2002 (45 euros).
Vittel and San Pellegrino water.
What it cost: 211 (18.02.2005 1 e.u. = 37.20 rub.)
Cafe des Artistes: 5/6 Kamergersky Per. Moscow.
Tel: (095) 292 4042