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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA

Restaurant Review

By Charles W. Borden

In April, Yuri Navarro, chef at Moscow’s long-time institution, Santa Fe, launched his own restaurant. The aptly named Navarro’s is on Shmitovsky Proezd and it is now one of the few restaurants in Moscow to bear a chef’s name. In this way, Yuri Navarro has staked a claim to fame as both chef and restaurateur.

Born in El Salvador a few months after Yuri Gagarin’s historic space flight in April 1961, Yuri’s connection with Russia was first formed by his Communist grandmother who insisted on naming him Yuri Gagarin. Yuri’s mother struck a compromise and kept the Yuri if not the Gagarin, but his grandmother saw to it that Yuri grew up listening to Moscow radio in his politically revolutionary home.

By 1979, Yuri was in New York as a student at the CIA or the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, where he graduated in 1981. His restaurant work took him to London, Paris and Antigua before he established himself in Los Angeles to work at the prestigious Hotel Bel Air, St. James and BelAge hotels. The pinnacle in Los Angeles came when Navarro opened his own California cuisine restaurant, Sun Dried Tomato, on glamorous Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.

In 1994, a Russian-American businessman came into Sun Dried Tomato every day and eventually struck up a conversation with him. He invited Yuri to visit Moscow where the businessman had thirteen food service establishments at Sheremetevo 2 airport. When Yuri arrived for a visit in October 1994 he found a rather shabby operation. Among other horrors for a professionally trained chef, Navarro was greeted by the Moscow chef who was in grubby clothes, smoking and drinking cooking wine while preparing the food.

But Moscow took its grip, and when Yuri returned to Los Angeles and received an offer to buy his restaurant, he sold it and was back in Russia by November. His stint at the airport lasted about one and a half years until there were difficulties with those that controlled the facilities, and so in 1996 he moved to Santa Fe until the opening of Navarro’s earlier this year.

John Ortega loves Navarro’s for its breakfast and brunches, particularly what he calls the “Breakfast Burrito” on the menu as Navarro’s Breakfast (160r). This includes a handsome serving of crispy bacon, hash browns, fried eggs, grilled tomatoes and mushrooms that John rolls up in the huge accompanying flour tortilla. The breakfast menu also includes such standards such French Toast (150r) and Pancakes with Maple Syrup and Fruit Salad (170r). The extensive weekend brunch is 1200 rubles. Navarro’s also has a good lunch menu and a separate tapas bar menu.

We sat down at one of Navarro’s large tables in the main dining room which was already filled with several tables of Spanish speaking expats from various countries. The interior is bright and colorful and reminiscent of Tijuana with Latin music in the background.

Our server brought out a small serving of one of Yuri’s specialties, Best Peruvian Seafood Soup (120r), a skewered shrimp in a tasty broth from mussels, shrimp, crabmeat, baby octopus and halibut. This soup is also on the menu at 390r for a large bowl and 210r for a small. Out came Yuri’s delicious Margaritas served on the rocks, which are somewhat on the sweet side but we like them that way.

John and I ordered soups – for me the White Bean Soup (190r) and the Rabo de Buey and Tortellini Soup (180r) for John. The bean soup was a pleasant broth with large white beans and an assortment of vegetables. The Rabo de Buey (oxtail) soup was dominated by large, tasty pieces of oxtail, also in a broth.

We also ordered the Coconut Cup Seafood (190r), an assortment of fresh seafood and shellfi sh served in a half coconut shell. Navarro’s also has an extensive Sushi and Sashimi menu. Yuri recommended the Canadian Roll (270r), a roll with salmon and cream cheese topped with smoked eel.

The main dishes can be selected from sections titled From the Land that include rabbit, duck, venison, lamb and veal, and From The Sea, with such entries as Soft Shell Crab, Prawns Paella and Tuna Steak and Foie Gras.

As a grill restaurant, Navarro’s has a great selection of grilled meats and fi sh, all prices per hundred grams. The beef is mostly Argentinean and includes Rib eye (290r), Tenderloin (320r), Strip Loin (300r), and Rump Steak (220r). We chose a fish tasting from the Navarro’s Grill – Mahi Mahi, Chilean Sea bass, Swordfi sh and Black Cod. Yuri sent out a grilled meat selection; huge chunks of Strip Loin, Rib Eye and a rack of New Zealand Lamb Chops. This was topped off with the specialty T-bone steak (999r), glazed with honey and mole sauce and a dollop of mustard. The Strip Loin and Rib Eye were big, soft and wonderful, about which John commented, “This is the way to eat meat, this is the only way to eat meat – grande!”

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