A version of this article originally appeared on MUNCHIES Italy.
My shot glass of vodka remained suspended in mid-air. The entire table was silent, the faces of my dinner companions perplexed. Seconds dragged by as if they were minutes. Finally, someone had the courage to tell me: "In Russia, we don’t say ‘na zdorovie’. That is a Western stereotype.”
That’s how my first meal in Moscow began. I’m not telling this anecdote to adhere with the criterion of embarrassment, but because it’s emblematic of the attitude with which I approached this trip: with several stereotypes in mind, along with the desire to refute them and—simultaneously—the desire to not refute them. When the Hotel Metropol invited me to spend three days in Moscow, the following image started percolating in my imagination: Rich Russians drinking vodka, eating caviar by the spoonful, and toasting with “na zdorovie!”
Once I established that they don't actually say that in Russia, all that remained was to establish the validity of the whole “caviar and vodka” thing.
My first meal wasn’t so much a real dinner as it was a tea ceremony. In Russia, there’s a ceremony specific to tea, and in this city the Hotel Metropol is the only place that continuously honors it without imposing limits as to the day or exact hour. You want a tea ceremony at midnight? Consider it done.
A nineteenth-century tradition carried out among shimmering silver and finely decorated ceramics, guests are offered blini, or traditional pancakes, to accompany caviar, little sandwiches, petits fours, black tea poured directly from the traditional silver samovar, and obviously a little glass of vodka to start because hey, why not? Tea first arrived in Russia in approximately 1300, as a gift from Chinese ambassadors. For many centuries, it remained a privilege of the rich until—as it went down in price—it was established as the drink of the people and a symbol of hospitality.
The Hotel Metropol was built in 1905. Having lived through a century’s worth of history, this mighty building—located just a few steps from the Red Square—has hosted some of the most important and famous characters from the twentieth century: From Bernard Shaw (who loved the vegetable soup) and Michael Jackson (who brought along his own personal chef) to Mao and Lee Harvey Oswald (the latter of whom spent three months living in room 2219). Rumor has it that Edward Snowden even is hiding here in one of the 365 rooms. While our small group of international journalists toured the hotel, we took turns raising our hands, trying to blindside our guide, a placid middle-aged Russian woman, by asking her “What about Snowden?” She smiled cryptically and limited herself to saying that his most famous interview was conducted here, but no, no one knows if he is still here.
The Metropol’s grandeur has been tarnished by time, but it’s still just as fascinating, what with all the glass liberty domes, marble fountains, and golden stucco. Surrounded by all this opulence, it’s hard to not feel absurdly privileged and vaguely guilty all at once. The other famous tradition here is the breakfast. It’s served daily in an Art Deco room, in which there’s a centrally located marble fountain (where, once upon a time, guests could literally go fishing), and food is consumed to the soundtrack of a live harp—there’s always someone playing a harp (every press release I saw stressed this fact). The buffet—surely the most robust and magnificent one I’ve ever seen—offers a wide range of cuisines from halal specialties to Chinese congee, and obviously includes Russian delicacies like blini stuffed with sweet or savory filling (my personal favorite is the one with farmers' cheese) and caviar. If I learned anything during my time in Moscow, it's that there’s never enough caviar. A breakfast like this means you might eat enough food to sustain yourself for an entire week, includes complimentary alcohol (a sparkling wine similar to Prosecco, served on ice), and costs 70 euros for guests who aren’t staying at the hotel.
The stereotype of the rich Russian who gorges himself on truffles and wears Prada jackets while vacationing in Italy may lead some of us to believe that any luxury experience in Moscow would be completely out of the question, financially-speaking. In reality, that’s not the case. Consider the Beluga, for example: After going to the Bolshoi theater to see the opera (I slept through about half of it, although in my defense I was hungover) my travel companions and I were directed to the Beluga at 11:30 PM. While it’s pretty close to the theater, we somehow got lost amid the Cyrillic street signs and the snow that fell on our heads. When we asked for advice from the first passerby who knew English, he warned us that we were headed for “the most expensive restaurant in town.”
To be fair, it may seem that way at a first glance. The Beluga is touted as “award-winning” by all of the main tourist guides. It’s elegant, but not in a “loud” way, tastefully decorated with artwork commissioned by its owner, Alexander Leonidovich Rappoport— GQ Russia’s “Man of the Year” and a lawyer with an international office and 16 restaurants scattered throughout the country—and lit by bohemian crystal chandeliers. Men in suits and women who’ve approached plastic surgery with a bit too much enthusiasm are seated at the tables. The menu is focused on caviar, offering about 36 different kinds in a variety of preparations or simply served alone.
Russia has entered into a phase of rediscovery of its typical products and traditions, bolstered by a taste for local foods after years of prioritizing foreign cuisines above all else.
If you order the precious Iranian beluga caviar, you might spend between 100 and 400 euros for approximately 50 grams. If you limit yourself to the Ossetra caviar, you can get a taster—25 grams on a silver spoon—for 11 euro and a free shot of vodka, which you can raise to Lenin's tomb, visible through the glass windows, as if to ask him Is this what you were expecting? The menu also offers proper dishes like tagliatelle with salmon and caviar for 18 euros or a delicious semi-vegetarian mixed plate, like artichokes with cubes of compressed caviar.
Rappoport, seated at the table with us, taught us how to eat caviar. "It’s better to eat it pure, but it’s also good with white bread and butter, or with cucumbers. The women here are eating it with cucumbers, in order to avoid consuming carbs," he explained, at more or less the same moment when I ate my fifth slice of caviar-laden bread. Vodka is really the traditional accompaniment to caviar; it’s not just a stereotype. We drank Snow Leopard, a spelt grain vodka that produces about 20,000 bottles annually and which is distilled six times over, making it extraordinarily pleasant and clean on the palate. It lacks the hammering effect vodka gives you at a club and is often referred to as “the vodka of the oligarchs.”
In recent years, amid European sanctions and counter-sanctions, Russia has entered into a phase of rediscovery of its typical products and traditions, bolstered by a taste for local cuisine after years of prizing foreign cuisines above all else. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the only restaurants that opened were appealing because they were vaguely foreign—a natural reaction to 60 years of Soviet cuisine and culinary obscurantism. Now, instead, we’re witnessing a new engine of gastronomical pride and the early beginnings of an oenological scene.
The principal area of Russian wine production is in Crimea. If, at first, the Russians interpreted “luxury” as “Soviet champagne”—sweet and fizzy rubbish—now they’re talking about grapes, production areas, and local varietals. There’s a general growing awareness, and Italian wines remain trendy.
"It's better to eat caviar pure, but it's also good with white bread and butter, or with cucumbers."
The walls of Wine and Crab restaurant, for example, are decorated with the names of Italian wines preceded by a hashtag: #recioto #valpolicella #prosecco, and more. The restaurant specializes in crabs and wine—bet you weren’t expecting that, were you?—and was started by an oil investor who wanted to “position” his cellar, which held about 1,000 bottles.
Natural wines are also trendy in Moscow. In Italy, where I’m from, natural wine is synonymous with fake, paint-chipped walls, wooden and metal stools, and indie music; in Moscow, the "typical" wine bar is Big Wine Freaks, which you might compare to a trendy bar in Tribeca. It was here that, one evening, we were out until 3 AM, drinking splendid wines from every part of Europe as I proved to myself that Russians drink too much by giving myself the worst hangover I’ve ever had in my entire life.
Thankfully, the hotel served Fat Thursday breakfast downstairs the next morning. I was lucky enough to arrive in Moscow during the week of Maslenitsa, a religious folk holiday celebrated during the last week before Lent, which meant that blinis were served all week, both in their stuffed and unstuffed forms and made with buckwheat or normal wheat. The savory ones are served with smoked salmon, sour cream, pickles (in Russia, they pickle everything from eggplant to apples), or shredded hard-boiled eggs; the sweet version comes with condensed milk and other delicacies like little syrup-covered pine cones.
You can experience another divine feast at Savva, a restaurant that opened inside the Metropol back in 2015. Andrey Shmakov, the head chef, is Estonian but inherited his passion for cooking from his Siberian grandmother, and was heavily influenced by his experience touring throughout Europe.
"The word ‘local’ doesn’t have much significance here, of course,” Shmakov says. “Especially when you consider how big Russia is, and how diverse its environments and its climates are. But the concept of seasons, now that exists. The younger generations understand fine dining and understand the work we’re doing here.”
In honor of Maslenitsa, the chef prepares coulibiak, a savory fish pie traditionally reserved for feast days. If the image of a personal meat pie the size of your fist immediately comes to mind, think again—Shmakov’s coulibiak is as large as a salmon and glimmers with butter on every scale.
Shmakov describes his cuisine as “contemporary Russian.” His plates are of a delicate, light elegance, which stands in stark contrast with the ambience of the restaurant itself—with frescoes on the ceiling, marble columns, and a stylized glass atrium, the place is pretty damn magnificent. The real gem of the menu is called “Russian Set,” a journey back in time via plates like duck stuffed with cherries and buckwheat lard-bread, or eel glazed with kvas (a fermented Slavic drink traditionally made from rye bread) and served with potato croquettes, relish, cottage cheese, and sauce gribiche.
Almost magically, tiny glasses of khrenovkha, horseradish-infused vodka, materialized on the table. My hangover-addled stomach started to grumble. But, while Russians may not actually say “na zdorovie!”, they sure as hell don’t allow you to turn down a glass of vodka.