Turandot - The Icy Princess
Turandot is the beautiful, icy princess of the Forbidden City – she lures prince-suitors to their death by posing three riddles. She will marry a prince who answers correctly, and if not he loses his head. Prince Calaf correctly answers the riddles, but instead of claiming Turandot, he poses his own riddle – “Tell me my name before morning and I shall die.” The highlight of the third act of Puccini’s opera Turandot is the marvelous aria Nessun Dorma (No One Sleeps). Princess Turandot decrees that no one will sleep that night in Peking until she learns Calaf’s true name. Thus the background for what must be one of Moscow’s, if not the world’s, great restaurant experiments, the huge investment in Turandot, next to the city’s essential Pushkin Cafe.
From the inconspicuous entrance on Tverskoi Bulvar, one enters a huge, white marble Italian courtyard, and then the circular, two-story dining area, on each floor surrounded by a series of small private dining rooms. Beneath the elaborately detailed and hand-painted, high cupola ceiling, bewigged and costumed chamber musicians perform classical music, opening the evening with Nessun Dorma. Belying initial impressions from the decor and costumes, the cuisine is Chinese, with Japanese as Moscow’s mandatory afterthought.
The kitchen and menu were designed by London restaurateur Alan Yau of Hakkusan and Waggamama, and built at a cost said to exceed $2 million. The rumors about the total cost of this edifice have varied from $25 million to $75 million, and even at the low end, it is difficult to imagine any restaurant justifying such a tag. However, Turandot occupies just a portion of this 26,500 square meter building that now features 400 underground parking places; as a real estate investment, these alone are worth no less than $150,000 each or $60 million, so the promoter’s bankers have left themselves an exit.
What is clear is that nothing was spared in the decor of Turandot – the hand painted chairs and tables, the tapestries and frescoes on the walls and ceilings, the costumes of the waiting staff, and the Bauscher (German) special order Turandot dinnerware. Turandot is the brainchild of artist Andrei Dellos, whose Pushkin has become an essential stop for expat business visitors to Moscow. Open just two months, Turandot has yet to catch on, but one could imagine it becoming another must see, an example of the extravagance gifted through high oil prices by George II to Russia and friend Vladimir Vladimirovich.
We ordered a diverse selection of appetizers including Salad of Foie-Gras with Smoked Eel and Green Apples (21 euro), Jasmine Tea Smoked Pork Ribs (17), Deep- Fried Coffee Flavored Spare Ribs (19.50), Spring Rolls with Smoked Duck and Peanuts (15.50), and Vietnamese Cold Spring Rolls Suffed with Shrimp and Mung BeanVermicelli (10.50). The menu also has a large dim-sum selection, unique in Moscow, fully supported by its specially equipped kitchen, with menu items that range from 9 to 15 euros.
Our group of eight’s dinner selections included a generous, thick Grilled Chilean Seabass in Chinese Honey (39), Fried King Crab Kamchatka with XO Sauce (49), Stir-fry Ostrich in Yellow Bean Sauce (23), and Grilled Lamb Chop with Coffee Sauce (27), described by our Russian guest as “it melts in your mouth, like a woman’s kiss.” The vegetarian, or at least vegetarian items, are always an interesting test of a restaurant’s skill. The Braised Homemade Tofu with Eggplant and Bell Pepper (14.50) (which also included crispy lotus root) featured the first authentic tofu I have found in Moscow.
As expected, the wine list is large and features just about every Grand and Premier Cru available in Moscow. There is a decent selection of Australian, California, and even a few New Zealand wines. An Opus One 1994 (California) was just 965 euros. At the low end (less than 100 euros) the markup appears to be 2.8 to 3.5, somewhat below the norm.
On the whole, the food was short of great, but was very good, adequate to support the faux-grand atmosphere of the venue. The prices, though not astronomical, were in the range you would expect in one of Moscow’s posh eateries. With wine, bring at least two Ben Franklins per person if you are paying the bill. If you can’t get into Cafe Pushkin, at least for now you can get a table next door. Though beautiful and cold, your out-of-town guests will not be disappointed.
Prices in Euros
Nessun Dorma (A Moscow anthem)
Vanish o night!
Stars set behind the mountains!
At daybreak, I shall conquer!