Moscow’s Best Restaurants?
Text and photos Charles Borden
When UK-based Restaurant magazine announced its annual list of the S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants in April, Vavary became the first Moscow establishment to make the list at #48. On April 23, The Independent used the occasion of the Vavary pick to publish “The chef leading Russia’s culinary revolution,” an overview of Russia’s restaurant market, and bio of Vavary chef Anatoli Komm.
Two other Moscow restaurants made the second tier of 51- 100: Semifreddo (83) and Chaika (99). Semifreddo improved from #94 last year and Chaika, a relative newcomer on the Moscow scene, is a new entry. Two Moscow restaurants on the 2010 list, Pushkin Café (93) and Doce Uvas(85) did not make the 2011 listing. Pushkin Café had continued a slide from #62 on the 2007 list, and Turandot, which had been #65 that year had already dropped off.
The crowning of Vavary, Semifreddo and Chaika as the best three restaurants in Moscow painted a virtual red and white target on the door of each, and provoked heated discussion in our PASSPORT dining circle. Most comments were along the lines of “Unbelievable! Who makes these ratings?” The short answer from the 50 Best website story is that the awards are compiled by Restaurant magazine, sponsored by S. Pellegrino, and selected by a poll of over 800 leaders from the restaurant industry. The fuss led to an impromptu lunch at Chaika, and a drop by at Semifreddo and Vavary.
We’ve been to Semifreddo Mulinazzo, near Park Kultury, where chef Nino Graziano presents an entirely Italian menu with a Sicilian slant. The Mulinazzo comes from the name of Graziano’s Il Mulinazzo (now called Graziano), a Michelin star restaurant in the Sicilian village Villaftati. The wine list is a huge compendium of the top Italian wines available in Moscow. Semifreddo’s wine and food prices are not for the faintpocketed, but undaunted black Mercs and Land Rovers jam up Semifreddo’s corner of tiny Rossillimo Ulitsa every night. Semifreddo still makes my top 10 list of Moscow restaurants.
Chaika occupies a free-standing building set back off Marksistskaya, though on the wrong side to catch diners headed home from the centre in the evening. It’s a lovely place, easy to find, marked by two white rhinoceroses grazing on the lawn. The day we visited the enclosed and very comfortable summer terrace had only recently opened. The hospitable chef, Dmitry Shurshakov, also oversees two other restaurants: Mechta on the Garden Ring near Paveletskaya, and Buffet. Shurshakov formerly worked at Grand Cru restaurant.
Perusing Chaika’s menu, I agreed with my dining partner, just in from Paris, that the descriptions were not generally eyecatching, but “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.” For our Saturday lunch, I ordered Green Asparagus Cream Soup (450r) and Risotto Four Cheese (490r). My guest ordered Rucola with Avocado, Tomato and Fried Porcini (450r with a 380r addon for the porcini) and Pappardelle with Duck Stew (590r). I was pleased with both my selections. The asparagus soup, poured into my bowl at the table over a dab of vanilla ice cream, was delightful. Both of us declared the risotto the best dish on the table. My guest was less pleased with his order; it was “good, but not great,” he commented. We concluded that Chaika was well worth another visit, better for dinner. But is it one of Moscow’s top three? Perhaps it’s a contender for the top twenty.
Despite Varvary’s presence on the Pellegrino 51-100 list last year, we still have not dined there, so no judgment is possible. We have dined at some of Vavary star chef Anatoli Komm’s other establishments but many are now closed; it appears that he is focusing on his flagship. The comments about the Vavary selection were mostly negative: “pretentious”, “outrageously expensive”. Komm is a proponent of molecular cuisine, which often turns up on the table as a light and foamy presentation, the antithesis of a good piece of red meat (which you’ll get at Chicago Prime in the same building).
Not one to accept hearsay, I decided to at least drop by Vavary. Entering through the side of the building that houses Chicago Prime and Starlite Diner, an elevator ascends to Vavary on the eight floor, and opens into the foyer of a darkly decorated but welcoming two floor salle à manger with windows overlooking the city to the northeast. There’s a large photo of the chef contingent, which apparently exceeds a dozen, with the master (as the host called him). I looked over two menus, one a large selection of Italian dishes for a la carte orders, and a selection of gastronomic Russian cuisine prix fixe dinners prepared by Komm himself topping out at 8500 rubles.
On this nice spring day, I visited Vavary’s magnificent open veranda on the top floor. I admit to being impressed by this first look and hope I got the point, that Komm is seeking to re-create a dining experience, with Russian cuisine, in the grand old style of the big kitchens of France. Has he done it? Somebody thinks so.