When my Russian grandfather arrived in the UK in 1910, at the age of 15, he did so with a very different view of his countrymen than when he set out. On the last stage of his journey, by boat from Hamburg to Hull, he had watched as the passengers played cards – throwing away or, in a few instances, doubling the small amounts of cash they were travelling with. Russians, he learnt, love gambling.
The Russian instinct for risk-taking is alive and well in their restaurant investments and, over the past 15 years, has manifested itself in an ever-increasing stake in a number of high-profile establishments. This began in Moscow with Café Pushkin, Turandot, Goodman Steak Houses and the Vogue Café; the first two run by Andrey Dellos, the others by Mikhail Zelman and Arkady Novikov respectively. It continued with openings in the smaller (but still highly populated) cities outside Moscow. And now a series of Russian-controlled openings is under way in London, Zurich and New York.
These newer openings are based not just on the success of certain restaurateurs but also on how much rich Russian customers have contributed to the profitability of European restaurants over the past decade. Roman Abramovich and Boris Berezovsky may be currently facing one another in the High Court, but they do share a passion for sushi, particularly Nobu’s.
Russian investment in restaurants in London began in 2002 with Alexander Wolkow’s opening of Sumosan on Albemarle Street, a sushi restaurant that had its origins in Moscow and subsequently branched out to Kiev.
This was followed by the first Goodman Steak House in Maddox Street, that has since spawned siblings in Canary Wharf and the City, as well as an outpost in Zurich.
These restaurants are conservative in their approach and execution, specialising in expensive ingredients, simply prepared. The Goodmans have been particularly successful – a clever remodelling of a classic American steak house, cooking good meat on the Josper Grill and appealing principally to men. Our 20-year-old daughter described the atmosphere as “incredibly male”. But while the herrings and the steaks were good, I came away from the Maddox Street branch with the impression that a great deal more attention needed to be paid to the details, and particularly to the desserts.
Leonid Shutov seemed to reinforce the stereotype of the wealthy Russian restaurateur with his opening of Bob Bob Ricard in Soho, an all-day brasserie with a late bar in the basement. More recently, he has staked its claim to fame on a wine-pricing policy that charges considerably less for its more expensive and sought-after bottles than any of its competitors.
The past couple of years have seen Russian restaurateurs placing bigger bets. Unsurprisingly, this has involved Moscow’s two biggest restaurant rivals, Dellos and Novikov, albeit in separate cities.
The first quarter of 2012 will see Dellos opening two restaurants in New York – a Café Pushkin at 41 W 57th Street and Manon, a French brasserie, at W 14th Street. His Moscow Café Pushkin is extraordinary – a reincarnation of a Russian nobleman’s house in the 19th century, open 24 hours a day.
On the corner of Berkeley Street in London, his rival Novikov has made his passion for Italian and Asian food very visible by spending more than £10m on two separate restaurants linked by a staircase that also leads down to a bar and club in the basement.
My first meal in the Asian restaurant was pretty good – generous, well-executed portions of shrimp and coriander dumplings, black cod rolls, Malaysian crab, and soya chicken with Chinese broccoli accentuated by very personable service. Both restaurants are large, but I believe that Novikov’s success in London will depend not only on how comfortable they feel on the quieter nights but also on how much independence he delegates to his talented team.
Finally, Londoners in early 2012 will witness the opening of the fourth Mari Vanna restaurant, after branches in Moscow, St Petersburg and New York. The gamble here for the Ginza Project group is that the building at 116 Knightsbridge has never proved popular, despite its plush location. But with its Russian menu of borscht, beef stroganoff and cabbage stuffed with meat and rice, it would certainly have appealed to my grandfather.
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