After a host of gastronomic fads either filtered down to the masses or fizzled out, the city’s trendsetters have now come full circle, returning to the simple foods of their childhood.
The English word “simple” has been popping up in the Russian-language PR materials of the finest new restaurants in town. Trendy magazines’ restaurant reviewers write glowingly about rosy-browned meat patties and waves of buttery mashed potato. And the Restaurant of the Year prize at April’s Lavrovy List awards went to ritzy Vogue Cafe, where a largely back-to-basics menu is drawing droves that could afford to eat caviar, truffles and oysters every day.
At Vogue, it’s de rigueur to sip kefir, or lunch on buckwheat kasha — just like grandma used to make — at prices high enough not to scare away the hoi polloi: Simple Doktorskaya kolbasa sausage and cheese sandwiches go for 70 rubles, as does the kefir, while good old-fashioned salad olivye and the buckwheat with white mushrooms are both 320 rubles.
“People here like to eat healthy, simple food that is easy to understand,” Vogue Cafe’s director Irina Sinitsyna said in an interview.
“There was a period in 1993-96 when everyone went crazy about high French cuisine. You can go to a restaurant like that once or twice a month, but people want to eat three times a day. This is why they come here and order buckwheat with mushrooms. …
“Chinese restaurants are popular, and people may go there because they like the taste or because it’s fashionable or their friends are fans — but after going there once or twice they will still be eating buckwheat.”
Vogue Cafe’s chef Yury Rozhkov defined “simple” food as that which is easy to understand in its taste, ingredients and cooking methods: “It is without complex details or the mixing of tastes. First of all, it is a natural, quality product, cooked in the simplest way, without stuffing or breading.”
Other restaurants offering simple food range from upscale Arkhitektor to Soviet-themed eateries like Petrovich, Marinad and Gogol — and, of course, countless genuine old-fashioned stolovayas all around town. Moscow-based American chef and restaurateur Isaac Correa, whose eponymous restaurant won the Critics’ Choice of Best Restaurant prize at the Lavrovy List restaurant awards, also seems to subscribe to the simple approach, describing it as the art of cooking and serving “using really good ingredients and not spending lots of time on presentation.” People like to feel comfortable, he said — they need a place where they can come and have some mashed potatoes, and eat the food they recognize.
Medeya Kirsanova, managing director at Petrovich, said simple homemade food was an essential part of the Russian character. “It is unnatural for Russians to be eating expensive French food all the time, even for those who can afford it, because they are Russians,” she said. “They have grown tired of it. They want to come to a restaurant just as they would come home and have pirozhki just like their mother used to make.”
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, people have tried and tasted everything. What they want today is well-prepared, simple, uncontaminated food, said chef Vladimir Yastrebov, formerly of Arkhitektor restaurant. “And it is not the most inexpensive, either. It is simple in its style, but the ingredients need to be first-rate.”
Konstantin Ivlev, chef at L’Etranger and a French cuisine devotee, said people today “have a craving for home-cooked food” — but just like with all things fashionable, its thunder won’t last forever.
“They [the restaurant goers] will stuff themselves full,” he said, adding that once they see that Russian food is heavy, they will switch to Chinese once again.”
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