Many of the high-end Moscow restaurants that get current hype in English-language sources sounded unappealing to me, largely because they follow the trend right now in Moscow for “themed” restaurants. Shinok, for example, has live farm animals to enhance its peasant house theme, and Turandot seems to get press that focuses only on the $50 million price tag for its decor.
What I wanted (like any good tourist, I suppose) was something “authentically Russian,” and preferably without the kitschy costumes and props of a “theme.”
The Economist City Guide for Moscow called Cafe Pushkin a “favorite,” and according to the New York Times/Fodor’s blurb, Cafe Pushkin is “perhaps Moscow’s most sophisticated restaurant.” Good start. And when one of Helen’s Moscow friends strongly recommended Cafe Pushkin for good Russian food in a “pre-revolution” mansion setting, I was sold. (That the restaurant turned out to be walking distance from our apartment near Tverskaya was icing on the cake).
One of Helen’s Moscow friends called and made a reservation for the four of us. And because we’d heard the second floor (with high ceilings and cozy bookshelves) was the place to be, the friend specifically requested a second floor table.
Of course when we arrived, the maitre d’ said she had no record of our reservation, and she certainly didn’t have any tables available on the second floor. (The first floor is a casual, cheery cafe; and the third floor is a dimly-lit balcony that overlooks the second floor).
So, to the low-ceilinged, somewhat-gloomy third floor we went.
I was prepared for – and curious about – the clubby, cherrywood library atmosphere and the brass light fixtures, but I wasn’t expecting the dowdy dark green tablecloths and red-cushioned chairs:
The menu (available in Russian, French and English) was leatherbound, enormous and confusing. The good news about a huge menu like that is you can pick and choose from enough dishes to create as expensive or as modest a meal as you want. Also helpful to the wallet is the fact that in Russia, an entire meal can consist entirely of starters (zakuski), so it’s no surprise the appetizer section of the menu ran for pages and was further subdivided into three or four other categories.
The bad news about a menu divided into ten thousand sections and subsections is that it took us ages to figure out what to order. Caviar blinis for $200? Pirozhki (meat and vegetable-filled brioche rolls) for a more humble $6? A bowl of borscht for $15?
Well, we passed on the caviar, but we loaded up on the pirozhkis and borscht. And I did enjoy my small pot of mixed mushrooms cooked in sour cream and butter.
At the time, I thought my mushroom appetizer was kind of a “random” dish (i.e., not particularly Russian), but over the course of our nine days in Russia, I saw how a lot of Russian food reflects a strong French influence, and I also noticed that mushrooms and sour cream are two very popular ingredients. (The other extremely popular ingredients being dill and beets, best I could tell).
The other “very Russian” appetizer at our table was Nick’s smoked herring (445 rubles/$18), served with hard-boiled eggs and boiled potatoes. The herring was intensely salty and fishy (i.e., the way you’d expect smoked fish to be), and so the creamy eggs and the bland potatoes were a perfect accompaniment and alleviator of saltiness.
Jon’s pork-lamb-and-beef pelmeni (i.e., meat dumplings) were tasty, though we probably could have guessed that they’d turn out to be quite ubiquitous and cheap in Russia, so ordering it at the Cafe Pushkin was silly. Pelmeni are the jiao zi of Russia, so unless they’re filled with luxury ingredients, I wouldn’t order them again at an expensive restaurant. (At a more everyday cafe, they’d cost maybe 150 rubles ($6) a bowl instead of the 680 rubles ($27) charged at Cafe Pushkin).
I love rack of lamb, so once again, despite my suspicion that there was nothing Russian about it, I decided to order it and make myself happy. But looking back, I can see how the dish was actually very Russian, because in the 19th century, Russian aristos loved everything French, and the resulting classic French influence shows itself in some of the pricier Russian restaurants in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
The rack of lamb had been deboned and then wrapped in a thin, crispy pastry. Feeling playful, the kitchen included a ribbon and seal and presented the whole dish as an old-fashioned parchment with rosemary “quill.” The waiter even has to “snip” the ribbons so you can get at the food. It felt very theatrical and old fashioned, and suddenly it dawned on me that despite best efforts to avoid eating at a themed restaurant, we were eating at a Russian-themed restaurant.
The risotto cooked in red wine was just awful. Gloppy, dense and hard. But the lamb and its accompanying tomato-rosemary sauce was delicious enough that I almost overlooked how this old-fashioned dish cost 1950 rubles/$80.
The desserts we ordered (a chocolate sponge cake and a “honey cake”) were both excellent and served in generous portions. The honey cake, made up of delicate layers of fluffy cake rich with honey, had a slight edge over the chocolate cake.
I should mention the wine list was pretty outrageously priced. Even the cheapest cotes du rhone started at hundreds of dollars. And we made the mistake of getting bottled water for the table, which turned out to cost 540 rubles ($22) per bottle. Annoying. Cafe Pushkin now edges out Le Pre Catelan for the title of “restaurant that charged us the most for bottled water, ever.”
Overall, the food was good, but not good enough to justify the prices we paid. I mean, at the end of the day, we were eating a lot of simple, classic Russian dishes (like the pelmeni and the borscht) that are widely available in Moscow restaurants.
That said, our meal was an easy, generally-high-quality introduction to a lot of Russian dishes, and there was some excellent people watching to be had. I probably won’t return if I’m in Moscow again, but what I’d advise other Cafe Pushkin diners to do is to stick with ordering only appetizers. And don’t order bottled water. Order tea. It’s only 135 rubles ($5) a pot.
Cafe Pushkin, 26a Tverskoi Bulvar, Moscow, +7 495 229 5590; Closest metro: Tverskaya