When you arrive in a city for the first time, once you’ve checked into thehotel, dropped off your bags and freshened up, there’s a temptation to head for a certain place, a place that emobodies the city, that makes it the place it is, at least in the collective imagination. The Sydney Opera House, London’s Houses of Parliament, the view of Central from Kowloon or a walk through Central Park: all are rightly celebrated and tell us something about the city. In Moscow, there’s an obvious choice, and Red Square doesn’t disappoint. All the history is there, of course, just read the guide books. But Red Square also embodies Moscow, and Russia’s future. Though it took me a while to realise it.
I was there on business, but restaurants became the theme of the trip. There are few surer signs that a city is ready to take its place on the world scene than it starts to shout about its restaurants. It is strange that only 16 years ago, the advent of McDonald’s was considered a world event, this symbol of capitalism arriving in the Russian capital. Now there are dozens ofMcDonald’s, and no one remarks on them, though plenty eat in them. But the more instructive story is the success of the Yolki Palki Empire.
The man behind them is Arkady Novikov. He is a prolific restauranteur, so prolific, in fact, that even his public relations person isn’t sure exactly how many he owns, or has an interest in. I’ve asked other, well informed people. They don’t know either. It isn’t important how many. Just,“a lot”. And so I gave up asking, and after just a few days, stopped asking a lot of other questions as well. That sums up the new Moscow. You adapt to it, because it isn’t going to change for you. As a city, it knows what is required to be a capitalist city. It needs smart restaurants, for instance, and it needs a public relations person to tell you how wonderful those restaurants are, but scratch the surface, and you’re left wondering. And then you stop wondering. It is in the cracks of the modern face that you can see the old Russia.
Ironically,Yolki Palki celebrates this old, Russia. There are dozens of these restaurants. We ate in a Yolki Palki just off Noviy Arbat. The name, literally translated means “Christmas Tree branches”, though I was also told it was a form of mild expletive, a kind of Fiddlesticks! For visitors to Russia who speak no Russian, and are scared away by the extremely fashion conscious, not to say outrageous prices of many high end Moscow restaurants, it’s a gentle introduction to Russian cuisine. The menu has English subtitles for visitors, and there’s a large buffet so you can try lots of little dishes – zakusi – without having to order unseen. It’s not a place you’ll particularly remember – mention it to your Russian colleagues and they will be amused, or bemused that you bothered. Why eat there when there are so many more expensive places?
Yet as well as Russian cuisine, what Yolki Palki gives you is a taste of the burgeoning middle classes of Moscow. They like it here. Yes, the service is friendly but terrible and the music is so loud that you can’t hear yourself speak, but then this is a city where many shops mistake themselves for nightclubs, and if you want subtle, Moscow isn’t the place. The music is loud, the decoration intense, and the drinking extreme. Perhaps because there were so many restrictions on alcohol for so long, there’s no stigma attached to drinking in public. Smart young couples walk arm in arm down the street drinking beer straight from the bottle.And at the more extreme end, it’s common to smell spirits on the breath of suited office workers on the underground in the morning.
Russian cuisine is more than just the palatable peasant cusine of Yolki Palki, though. For a high end taste, try Vertinsky. The family name is a famous one in Russia, largely because of the famous tenor Alexander Vertinsky (1889-1957). Arkady Novikov has some kind of interest – if not financial, then advisory in this beguiling mix of “new” Chinese and Russian restaurant. But it is the shorter, Russian menu that gives the reason to visit; the creation of Vertinsky’s daughter, the famous Russian actress Anastasia Vertinskaya.
Starters include sturgeon and salmon in aspic (US$11),Herring pate with rye bread (US$8), quail pate (US$12) and crepes with veal bone marrow (US$12). This last, belying its description by being a melting pancake with a deliciously soft and tasty filling.With main courses such as duck leg with apples and prunes (US$20) and sturgeon cotlette with milk sauce and mushrooms (US$17), it’s an unusual venue, not least because the Chinese theme is complimented by black and white pictures of Vertinsky.
Incidentally, the family seems to be involved in entertainment and restaurants. The son of Anastasia Vertinskaya and Oscar-winning film director Nikita Mikhalkov – Stepan Mikhalkov, 34, also has interests in several restaurants, including Vanil, practically next door but looking out on to the controversially rebuilt Christ the Saviour cathedral. Whether the estimated cost of US$360 million was worth the money, when many aspects ofMoscow certainly still need investment, is something that can be debated from the window seat of Vanil. The cream interior has interesting touches such as the largest mirror I’ve ever seen, jammed at an angle between floor and ceiling as though in an unsuccessful attempt to have it fitted. The pale wooden walls are rendered to look like breeze blocks, but the menu – a choice and fusion between Russian and Japanese is excellent, though prices are sky high. I much preferred Vanil to another popular Novikov restaurant – Galereya. It is well named not only because it has large out-size black and white prints from GQ magazine on the walls but also that you are on display, as is everyone else who eats here. The night we visited there seemed to be more supermodels than diners.
Still,Novikov isn’t the only restauranteur in town. There’s also Andrei Dellos, the man behind the fabulous Café Pushkin, seemingly the only authentic Russian restaurant in Moscow, though in fact a perfect recreation of one. Open 24 hours a day it serves excellent food, and is an example of what Guillaume Rochette, a specialist in recruitment for Moscow’s top restaurants calls the “Neoclassic style”.
An admirer of the Russian restaurant scene, Rochette identifies many differences between Moscow’s scene and that of Paris,New York or London:“The Russians are very clever. They look European, but they are Asian in temperament. They go to the essentials and work backwards.When they began devising these restaurants, they went to Paris to find the chefs because that was where they supposed the benchmark was to be found, but as we know, it had moved on, to London.”
It’s notable that the other market that Rochette’s Eureka Executive Search is busy in is Dubai, another hugely expanding restaurant market. It’s doubtful that Dubai salaries for chefs and top end restaurant staff are as high as the ones in Moscow, however. Partly, this is because of the early reputation of Moscow as the wild east,with security problems, but now it is mainly because of the competition for the top names and staff.
Even those restaurants with an international theme and international ownership and management adapt to local clientele. Café Suisse, for instance, in the new Swissotel has a menu reflecting the fact that Russians like a buffet for starts and desserts but a la carte for the main course. You will also find that the moment you have finished eating, your plate will more often than not be cleared away, despite the fact that your fellow diners have not finished. It’s seen as an aspect of efficiency perhaps, though an expat in the city recounted how he arrived at 8.15pm for an 8pm dinner appointment only to find everyone had ordered and was already eating.Not rude, just the way things are done here.
Of course, to try these restaurants, you are going to need somewhere to stay, and that’s where things get really expensive.Moscow is getting busier, and despite a difficult and expensive visa regime, more visitors are arriving each year. In 2004, some 27.4 million passengers passed through the city’s three main airports – a 15.5% year-on-year increase, and 32 million were expected in 2005. The increase means that hotel rooms are at a premium, and rates are extraordinarily high. Corporate travel management company BTI UK says that Moscow now has the most expensive corporate hotel rates worldwide, with the average being US$304 per night, compared with US$281 in New York and US$239 for London.
The total room stock in Moscow is estimated to be 35,000 but only 8,000 are of international standard (compared with London and Paris where the total “graded” room stock varies between 70,000 and 75,000). It’s a fact not lost on the major brands, who are either here or are due to open soon.At the end of last year, the Courtyard by Marriott Moscow City Center opened its 218- room property only 10 minutes from the Kremlin.Meanwhile, you’ll find Kempinski Hotels, Hyatt, Swissotel, Rezidor SAS,Accor and Starwood Hotels & Resorts. There is also the Ritz-Carlton opening in June, and talk of a Four Seasons, though controversy swirls around this last one, on the site of the old Moskva Hotel. Rumour has it that the project has run into problems, partly because the Russian Duma has grown used to having the views now that the old monstrosity of the Moskva Hotel has been knocked down. Of course, that’s just the state of play at the time of going to press.
What’s sure is that for the moment, investment in the hotel market is huge as everyone rushes in.As Mark Wynne Smith, European CEO, Jones Lang LaSalle Hotels predicts “…investment into hotels in Moscow could rival London, Paris and New York in the coming years.”
“A lot of projects are in development,” says Oliver Eller, general manager of the new Ritz-Carlton. Situated on the former tourist site on Tverskaya Ulitsa, his new hotel will add 332 rooms and is in the imperial style,with chandeliers,marble, a Swiss Michelin-starred chef for the restaurant and even a suite with its own internal panic room in case of attack – terrorist or otherwise. There are also five full storeys of underground parking (apparently 80% of Bentley’s production of luxury cars goes to Russia), so perhaps this is where they will be parked and a roof top bar with views out over Red Square and the Kremlin.
If all plans come to fruition, by 2012, the hotels currently under construction or planned will increase Moscow’s quality room supply to 14,000, almost doubling today’s stock. What’s clear is that you can be sure that nothing will stand in the way of all this progress.
How do I know? Well, I took a clue from the view from Red Square. It was the frequent pictures of the place that had drawn me there, and perhaps the most famous angle is to look along the length of the Kremlin walls towards St Basil’s. It’s a view cameras automatically gravitate to – Kremlin to the right, the gilded domes of St Basil’s at the centre. And then you realise in between the two, poking up like a cheeky reminder of the aspirations of this city, is the Swissotel Tower.
It’s hard to think of what other city would allow this to happen, where the rules are there for breaking. And history is there only to help quicken the future.