Battered by crisis, Moscow restaurants embrace Russian cuisine

MOSCOW - Ginger pickles, soup with cabbage and porcini, and reindeer tartare: as economic troubles take a bite out of imported food, Russian restaurants are increasingly turning to local delicacies.

Gone is the era when Italian and French cuisine dominated Moscow's high-class eateries. The economic crisis and import embargo keeps foie gras and Parmesan out of Russian kitchens, so new venues like Poyekhali (Let's Go) are aiming to "tell their own story" through Russian food.

As casseroles sizzle in the kitchen of the restaurant, opened in October, manager Yelena Chekalova says the time has come to "use local products that are familiar to us, but to prepare them with techniques invented elsewhere".

This fusion approach creates "Russian nouvelle cuisine", the journalist-turned-restaurateur told AFP, and elevates ingredients often thought to be humdrum to new heights.

The culinary trend had a hesitant start a couple of years ago but is now burgeoning in the atmosphere of overt patriotism and the scarcity of many European foods due to the agricultural embargo Moscow imposed last year following Western sanctions over Ukraine.

It recently won official recognition when the prestigious list "The World's 50 Best Restaurants" gave 23rd place to the Moscow eatery of star chef Vladimir Mukhin, White Rabbit. It praised him for "reimagining" Russian staples like beetroot soup, fried carp and buckwheat porridge, saying "chef Vladimir Mukhin claims to have borscht running in his veins".

Many restaurants that relied on meat, cheese and fish imported from the West were forced to close while those that strived to source their ingredients from Russian regions are now more competitive despite the economic meltdown.

Localise to survive

"We suffered less than others because the idea of our project was to work with produce that is 90 per cent Russian," Chekalova said. "But we've also suffered. Clearly when fewer products are supplied to the market, everything becomes more expensive."

Poyekhali had to raise its prices by 10 per cent, she said, and shed some popular dishes, such as the scallop risotto, which has become too expensive to prepare and was replaced by a dish of pearl barley with winkles.

As prices grew for both food and imported restaurant appliances following the crash of the ruble late last year, the sector has also suffered from the falling purchasing power of Russians who are opting to eat at home more often.

Russia's Restaurateur and Hotelier Federation estimates that 1,000 cafes went out of business in the past few months, some of which were able to reopen after rebranding and changing their menus.

"The peak of the crisis has passed," believes Igor Bukharov, the head of the federation. "Since then, the ruble has rebounded and many restaurants reviewed their menus, optimised costs and staff and launched new projects that work better."

Soviet classics return

"Those who had dishes made of expensive and high-quality ingredients saw prices on their menu become inaccessible and suffered the most," said Alexei Zimin, editor in chief of Afisha Food gastronomy magazine.

"Those who used local produce from the beginning didn't need to change suppliers," he said.

Pierre Gagnaire, a Michelin-starred French chef had to close his Moscow restaurant in a luxury hotel.

He said the closure was not due to the embargo on Western foods, but told the French paper Le Figaro that he needed to "think of a new concept that would correspond to the desires of Moscow's people".

As the taste for fancy European food subsides, countless places are opening that offer Central Asian cuisine and staples from elsewhere in the former Soviet Union.

"Because of, or despite, the crisis people are finally turning away from complicated concepts and seeking new forms of simplicity," influential Moscow chef Uilliam Lamberti wrote in Time Out.

Even the luxury Hotel National next to the Kremlin chose a theme that is close to home for its new restaurant, naming it Doctor Zhivago after the novel by Boris Pasternak.

The menu is comprised of Soviet classics, from the mayonnaise-dressed Olivier winter salad to herring and pelmeni, a kind of Siberian dumpling.

Spartak Bemov, the director of Seryozha, another new restaurant that offers classic Soviet dishes confirmed that Russians are turning back to familiar comfort foods.

"People are looking more and more for simple venues with familiar dishes and prices that are not prohibitive."