Saturday, June 10, 2006

A feast fit for a Muscovite: Dining in the Russian capital

Russian cuisine is famous for caviar, vodka, blinis and borscht - and, in the days of Soviet package tours, for watery cabbage and gristly beef at the Intourist Hotel. Those who remember only that era will not recognise the new Moscow, which, if you can afford it, has restaurants and cooking comparable to any city in the world. But the fashion is for sushi and Irish pubs - so where can you find authentic Russian cooking?
The best way, if you can manage it, is to get invited to a Russian home. The Russians love to entertain and have a positively oriental notion of hospitality. On our last visit, we went to dinner with our friends Nadia and Nikolai. We arrived to find Nikolai cooking pancakes in the kitchen; and sat down to a first course of blini and red caviar, smoked salmon, prawns, cold meat and the pickled mushrooms that Nadia had collected in "her village", where they have their dacha. This was followed by wild boar, then goose, then a torte (a Viennese-style confection smothered in cream), and finally ice cream and tea.
Meanwhile, the three of us who were drinking got through two half-litre bottles of vodka, a cranberry-flavoured spirit and a lot of fruit juice. Nadia, who served us this delicious but potentially life-threatening feast of calories, is a consultant cardiologist.
This is not everyday fare: it is the sort of meal with which Russians like to celebrate, and for which, in Soviet times, they went to restaurants on rare occasions such as weddings and graduations. The rest of the time, most Soviet citizens ate at least one meal a day at a works canteen - not the same as a restaurant and certainly not the basis for a restaurant culture.
Perestroika brought the first McDonald's to Pushkin Square: Muscovites queued for hours to get a Big Mac and fries. After that came chains of Russian fast food, such as Russkoe Bistro and Rostiks. If you want good as well as inexpensive Russian fare, the MuMu chain offers self-service with rustic décor, where you queue for dishes course by course: salads, mains, soups, shashlik and desserts. There is an English menu - though some of the items need deciphering: what, for example, are "duck's trotters"?
One step up is the "business lunch", a set meal for 200-500 roubles (£4-£10) available in many establishments where an evening meal would cost 10 times as much. In the centre of Moscow there is a good light business lunch to be had at Mesto Vstrechi, at Maly Gnezdnikovsky Pereulok 9, with soup or salad and a main course. At Ekspeditsiya, Pevchevsky Pereulok 8, they serve "authentic recipes ... all basic food products from the Arctic region". It offers caribou and muksun (Siberian salmon) and has a Siberian sauna and an Arctic rescue helicopter in the dining room.

The helicopter supplies ambience, an important element for Russians in eating out. (The reason for the success of McDonald's was the opportunity it gave to get a feel of the West.) The post-Soviet years saw a rush of themed restaurants named after comedy films and the novels of George Orwell, or cashing in on nostalgia for Soviet and pre-Soviet times.
The king of the Moscow restaurant scene is Arkady Novikov, who, allegedly after failing to get a job at McDonald's, borrowed enough money to open his own place. He ended up with 90 restaurants, including the chain Yolki-Palki and such exotic venues as the Vogue Café, Biskvit (designed to look like a 19th-century gentleman's club) and Sirena, a fish restaurant with an aquarium under its glass floor. Apart from Yolki-Palki, most seem to cater for thosewho like to be seen to be rich.
Typical of such places (though not in the Novikov empire) are the three restaurants at Ulitsa 1905 Goda 2: Shinok, Shato (Château) and Le Diuk (Le Duc). The first specialises in Ukrainian cuisine, but you are more likely to remember the farmyard in the middle of the room; diners can look through the windows at cows, chickens and goats, and the woman in Ukrainian peasant costume who feeds them and sweeps up.
Shato offers French cuisine in surroundings meant to suggest gracious living in old Aquitaine. Next door, Le Diuk is also French, and the visitors' book boasts the signature of Mikhail Gorbachev and other celebrities. The château motif is taken still further: the décor is somewhere between medieval dungeon and Gothic crypt.
Such fantasies are not everyone's idea of fun, nor would they do much for your bank account, your health or your waistline. By contrast, coffee shops such as Donna Klara, Malaya Bronnaya 21/13, and Delifrance, inside the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall in Triumfalnaya Ploshchad, offer small snacks and cakes. One of the best is Kafe Gotti, Ulitsa Tverskaya 24, where young women watch passers-by or meet friends to chat over a coffee, a light lunch or supper, and probably a cigarette. After the extravagant make-believe that goes with eating elsewhere in Moscow, this place offers a welcome return to normality.
Intourist (0870-112 1232; offers three-night breaks in Moscow from £790 per person. The price includes return flights, transfers, three nights' b&b at the three-star Hotel Cosmos and a visa, which is subject to a minimum of 10 working days' processing time.


The aloha plate

Multi-cultural, plate-lunch experience at Aloha Hawaiian Barbecue in Salinas

When it comes to dining, most Hawaiian tourists never venture far beyond the beach resort.
Rarely do visitors experience the more typical blue-collar food of the Aloha State, specifically, Hawaiian barbecue, a smorgasbord of cuisines thrown together to create what is affectionately called "the plate lunch."
The origin of the plate lunch dates back to the late 1800s, when Hawaii's economy hinged on the labor-intensive plantation agricultural system. Workers from around the world (including Japan, China, Korea, the Philippines and Portugal) emigrated to toil in the sugar cane and pineapple fields. Each ethnic group brought its own cuisine, and eventually the different items became "mixed together" to create one multicultural "plate."
The plate lunch is still a huge part of local culture in Hawaii and, over the last decade or so, it has spread to the western United States through fast-food franchises such as Aloha Hawaiian Barbecue (the Salinas joint is owned by Juliang and Joan He).
Patterned after the grandfather of these franchises, L&L Hawaiian Barbecue (which started in 1976 in Honolulu), Aloha Hawaiian Barbecue provides generous portions of an entrée (such as chicken, pork, beef, fish or, yes, Spam -- that infamous canned meat mélange made by Hormel), along with the starchy sides of macaroni salad and sticky rice.
Aloha Hawaiian Barbecue says hello to all these traditions (including the Spam) and goodbye to high prices seen at American-style barbecue joints. Here, for example, a Hawaiian BBQ Mix -- chicken, beef and short ribs (along with the customary ice cream scoopful of macaroni salad and rice) -- will set you back only $6.95.
For sheer variety, one can order American (hamburgers, French fries and onion rings), Japanese (chicken katsu), Korean (kim chee) and the uniquely Hawaiian sushi called Spam musubi.
Hawaiians have a love affair with Spam. They treat this prehistoric pressed pork product as a delicacy (according to Hormel, the average Hawaiian eats a whopping 12 cans a year).
So there's no way I'm leaving Aloha Hawaiian Barbecue without trying Spam sushi (a rite of passage for island newcomers anxious to attain "local" status).
I hated it, to be honest, but this conversation piece is worth well more than the $1.39 price tag. And this fun-funky place warrants a visit because the food is so over the top it creates the most subjective of dining experiences. In short, you have to try it for yourself.
There are 38 menu items, almost all of them involving meat and/or starch. Approaching the counter with caution, I finally selected the barbecue mix, along with the screwy sushi. I laughed as a normally squeamish Melissa brazenly ordered something called Loco Moco.
Almost before we could collect our plastic ware and napkins, the food arrived -- tucked inside clamshell takeout boxes; another giggle, followed by a dual guffaw when I opened the Spam box. There it was, a greasy slab of Spam the size and shape of a bar of soap (yet somehow a different smell), wrapped up like a present with a wide seaweed ribbon. We discovered later that it's made with a special kitchen gadget known as the Spam Musubi Maker (hmmm, stocking stuffer perhaps?)
I dived in, chewing in time to the dulcet tones of Don Ho -- and the result was mixed. The powerful Spam overpowered the sushi, and it was just too bizarre to take seriously. The barbecued chicken (boneless thigh meat pounded flat) came seared after marinating in a sweet and savory teriyak-style sauce. It was quite good. The short ribs, cut ultra-thin, lengthwise, were tough and gristly, and the thin slices of marinated beef were tender, but fatty.
A mixed bag, but a hoot nonetheless. Just have your cardiologist on speed dial.
Perhaps due to my dad's stint in the military, our kitchen pantry was stocked with Spam. Mainly, I remember eating Spam sliced on Roman Meal bread with mustard and lettuce. The moment I grew old enough to object, I permanently placed Spam on my list of foodstuffs "never to be eaten ever again in my entire life" -- until prompted, by the brand of curiosity that makes one gawk at train wrecks -- by the menu at Aloha Hawaiian Barbecue.
I have to give this quirky little joint points for finding a truly unique niche. Aloha holds to a standard. Here we have food readily recognized by island locals as the real thing, delivering the unadulterated savory comforts of home.
A Styrofoam container of Japanese-style barbecued chicken noodle soup (chicken katsu saimin) consists of ramen-like noodles (except these are made with eggs) and glazed dark chicken meat in a rich broth seasoned with green onion and sweet teriyaki flavors ($3.28). This soup is reminiscent of, but much heartier than, Vietnamese noodle soups. I don't know what got into me, but I couldn't resist the Loco Moco ($5.95) -- two hamburger patties on rice, smothered with meat gravy and topped with two fried eggs -- a regional dish with legions of fans. A side of macaroni salad with tuna makes for a study in overkill.
The patties were of the thin, mealy Salisbury steak variety (and, in another bizarre flashback, reminiscent of those old Swanson TV dinners).
While I have to admit this dinner would wash down a lot better with a strong tropical cocktail, a variety of Hawaiian Sun juices are available. And an ice cream case beckons with exotic flavors such as green tea, mango and lychee nut (probably far less fattening than what we'd just consumed). As we ate, a steady clientele of Pacific islanders wandered in for some takeout. As my dad would say, the proof is in the pudding -- or, in this case, the Spam.