MOSCOW — On New Year’s Eve, dining-room tables across Russia will be covered with a mosaic of glittering red caviar, piroshki, marinated mushrooms, beet salad and herring. Chilled vodka bottles and Champagne flutes will tower over the dishes, reflecting the TV screens where the president — this year, the returned Vladimir Putin — will make his annual toast before the Kremlin bells chime in the new year.
In Russia, no other holiday is as beloved or celebrated. For me, New Year’s Eve dinners are the brightest culinary memory of the hungry 1990s, when Russian stores sold mainly bread, milk, canned sprats and frozen chicken thighs imported from the U.S. and nicknamed “Bush’s thighs.”
Since then, Moscow and St. Petersburg have become pricey, globalized megalopolises with sushi bars, hookah parlors and pizzerias that play to locals’ thirst for all things foreign after the collapse of the Soviet Union. For travelers, there has been scarce chance to find good local fare. But now, Russian chefs are starting to tap their native roots and the country’s geographic diversity to show that their country’s cuisine is more than just potatoes and vodka.
In my search this fall for high-quality modern Russian cuisine, I attended Moscow’s second annual Festival of Food at the newly remodeled and suddenly hip Gorky Park, which welcomed a who’s who of the country’s sweeping culinary revolution: food bloggers, celebrity chefs, bearded Siberian honey farmers and crowds of the city’s new gourmands out to taste foods as varied as traditional mushroom pies and Arctic sashimi.
I tried Ivan chai, or fermented chamerion tea, which was an important export of pre-Soviet Russia and is making a comeback. Nearby, Siberian farmers sold lilac-colored flour made from the bird cherry tree, a traditional regional product that gives cakes the color of chocolate and the nutty taste of rum.
This was encouraging. Alexei Zimin the festival’s organizer and a food magazine editor, told me we were witnessing the rebirth of the Russian culinary tradition.
“Russians have always been very West-oriented, but we are starting to see demand for a new type of Russian restaurant that focuses on a new interpretation of Russian culinary traditions,” he said.
One of these is Schisliva, which opened in the summer across from the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts and steps from the golden-domed Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, the stage for Pussy Riot’s protest performance for which three members were arrested.. It has one of the city’s best overlooks.
After a visit to both sites, I lunched on Schisliva’s baked beet-root salad and Siberian whitefish dumplings with morel sauce. They were unusual, sophisticated and truly Russian. But the real highlight was the dessert: ice cream with candied baby pine cones and roasted pine nuts that made me feel as if I had taken a walk in one of Russia’s many forests.
For a real walk the next morning, I headed along the tree-lined boulevards that form a pedestrian circle around the center of Moscow to Patriarch’s Pond, home to swans in the summer and ice skaters in the winter. There, among chic boutiques, I found Mari Vanna, a fun restaurant designed as a 1960s apartment that serves Russian home cooking. Quickly becoming an international hit, Mari Vanna is set to open a Los Angeles location in 2013.
After a breakfast of apple pancakes and sea buckthorn tea, I continued along the boulevards toward Arbat, a pedestrian street filled with artist stalls and souvenir shops. My favorite was Arbatskaya Lavitsa, where I found a selection of gifts that reflects Russia’s rich culinary history: traditional wooden Khokhloma spoons, ceramic Gzhel bowls and birch bark spice containers.
My next stop was Vatrushka, the new restaurant of prize-winning chef Dmitry Shurshakov. Sitting in the stylish brick dining room of a 200-year-old mansion, Shurshakov told me he wanted to re-imagine classic 20th century Russian recipes using common ingredients and new techniques.
“I call it positive Russian cuisine,” he said. “We want to tap into locals’ childhood memories and introduce foreigners to first-rate products that we now have in Russia.”
He suggested I try the sprat appetizer. The canned oily fish from 1990s store shelves? And then he brought me a mix of sprats, black rye bread cubes and sautéed eggplant that formed a complex, nourishing dish that put a smile on my face.
“See what I mean by positive?” Shurshakov asked. “If you want to see a mixologist who does with drinks what I do with food, go see Alexander Kan.”
Kan, one of Russia’s best mixologists, just helped to open Time Out Bar on the rooftop of the Peking Hotel, where I found stunning city views from a spacious 1950s hall with marble columns and Soviet frescoes.
Kan served me his famous Isayev, the Russian version of a martini with concentrated birch tree juice instead of vermouth. I could see myself coming back for a Bloody Masha, with horseradish and honey, or the Samovar Kalinka Malinka, a vodka, cognac and viburnum berry punch served at tea time from a golden samovar, but I had a train to catch.
An easy four-hour ride away, romantic St. Petersburg, with its canals, museums and aristocratic history, was beckoning.
Unlike trend-setting Moscow, St. Petersburg is a preservationist city that values cultural continuity. That means beautifully restored churches, manicured gardens, stately mansions and lots of museums.
I got my bearings in the Venice of the North on a canal boat tour that glides under a dozen bridges to the windy Neva River bay that opens onto a fantastic view of the Hermitage Museum. Then, after a snack of roasted cabbage and lingonberry pies from the famed Stolle bakery, I visited the apartment museums of Alexander Pushkin and Anna Akhmatova, two of Russia’s most beloved poets whose dining rooms played key roles in the country’s cultural and political changes.
For dinner, I decided to see another kind of museum and headed to Russian Vodka Room No. 1, a restaurant that serves 20th century Russian food complimented by 213 kinds of vodka, a favored drink whose fascinating history you can learn at the adjacent Russian Vodka Museum.
“Bolsheviks destroyed much of our culinary history, but I hope there will be a renaissance of Russian cuisine,” Leonid Garbar, the restaurant’s owner, told me over appetizers. “After all, how long can we poison ourselves with sushi?”
I love sushi, I thought, but he is right. If Russia takes pride in its cultural history, why is it only now rediscovering its culinary one?
I found the answer in, of all places, the Russian Museum, which houses an extensive collection of Russian art from icons to Impressionist paintings. Just as in today’s culinary world, Russian artists always looked to Western Europe for a model of good art. What they ignored is displayed in the museum’s folk art wing: fascinating moss dolls, clay ocarinas, embroidered tablecloths, birch vessels and unusual pike-shaped cookie cutters.
One place that proudly preserves traditional Russian cuisine is Russkaya Charka, recommended to me by food historian Maksim Syrnikov. But when I saw the restaurant’s kitschy décor of samovars, peasant shirts and a stuffed wolf, I thought he must have made a mistake.
Then I looked at the menu: bear cutlets, elk stew, veal tongue. These guys were serious about their fare. So I ordered a Pozharsky cutlet, a tender chicken fillet coated with crunchy white bread chunks that left no doubt about why it was such a hit with the 19th century crowd.
For a nightcap, I headed to the Hat, a bar that opened in the summer with no menu and no set hours, but nightly live jazz and custom-made cocktails served by legendary bartender Grisha.
My request was simple: “I want something that I can’t find anywhere else.”
He looked at me carefully, rubbed his red mustache and made two multicolored shots topped with a slice of green apple.
“Welcome back!” said Grisha, and we downed a liquid that tasted like Plombir, creamy vanilla ice cream I had as a little girl growing up in what was then still the Soviet Union.