On the long pine table in the centre of Delicatessen in downtown Moscow, Ivan Shishkin is rifling through a mountain of dried limes, mallow flowers and bags of tapioca flour, instantly living up to the nickname given to him by his colleagues.
“They call me The Squirrel,” he says, “because I’m constantly buying new ingredients and searching through them for new tastes to surprise our customers.” On the menu this means vanilla-infused beet carpaccio with orange gel and thyme, or perhaps calf’s brains with egg yolk. At the bar there is a dazzling selection of home-made liqueurs, from tequila with pine nuts still in their shells to whisky with quince. Shishkin, 38, is head chef in the restaurant’s four-man team. He is also one of a new breed of restaurateurs who just might spark a revolution in the way that Muscovites eat.
For a city that flaunts its wealth so conspicuously Moscow is notably short of accomplished cooking, let alone fine dining. Russia’s most lauded chef, Anatoly Komm, won his Michelin star for a restaurant in Geneva rather than his homeland. His Moscow establishment Varvary (“barbarians”) serves modern twists on Soviet-era dishes such as pickled herring and squeaked on to the S.Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards at 48 this year.
But most Russian restaurants do not share his ambition. There are surprisingly few superstar chef outposts here too, although the movement is starting with Alain Ducasse opening his first Russian venture, miX, at the new W Hotel in St Petersburg, and Pierre Gagnaire running Les Menus in Moscow. So far, there has simply not been enough appetite for their style of cuisine, though Nobu has opened a restaurant near the Bolshoi theatre to feed the Russians’ love of sushi.
The nation’s unadventurous palate dates from the Soviet era, when restaurants were a rarity. Even when Russians ate at home, the search for ingredients was fraught with queuing and disappointment. Add to that the fact that Russia is covered in snow for six months a year and you understand the attachment to beetroot, black bread and pickles. For a long time it was hard to get much else.
Katerina Drozdova, one of the founders of Ragout, a new Moscow eaterie that serves clever cuisine at fair prices, notes that when the Soviet Union fell, food became an excuse for excess. “In the 1990s, when people suddenly had money, going to a restaurant was about spending that money as conspicuously as possible – you could dance on the tables if you wanted to.”
Entrepreneurs worked out that giving diners a good time was not about giving them good food. “Russians don’t go to a restaurant to eat, they go to be entertained,” says Arkady Novikov, the impresario with a string of restaurants in Moscow and abroad. No wonder then that most of his restaurants are small masterpieces of theatre, decked out like art galleries, libraries and ski chalets, and that most of them serve borscht, cabbage rolls and Caesar salad.
What Drozdova and her team at Ragout and Shishkin and his friends at Delicatessen are trying to do is bring a new kind of dining experience to the city. “In the west, a chef is an artist like a painter and the customers trust him to know more about the food than they do. That’s not the case in Russia,” she says. Shishkin believes that the more Russians discover this difference abroad, the more likely the situation is to change at home. “People travel a lot now, and they know how they eat in Thailand, London and New York, and when they come back to Russia they want to know why they can’t find the same kind of quality.” Both restaurants are affordable, with main courses at about £10-15.
On the menu at Ragout, where glass windows look onto spare black tables and a minimalist interior, adventurous dishes such as goat’s cheese mousse with beet and port jelly sit next to a trio of black bread, bacon and beetroot ice-cream, as delicious as it was surprising. Russian heritage isn’t spurned completely, but it is firmly reinvented.
Ilya Shalev, the chef at Ragout, spent 18 years overseas before returning to Moscow, after working in Paris with Alain Senderens and at The Ivy in London. “I remember what the food was like in London 20 years ago. It was absolutely terrible and look at how that has changed. Why can’t it happen here?” he says.
In the year since Delicatessen and Ragout opened their doors, Moscow dining has got better, with many new restaurants tucked away from the main thoroughfares.
At Ragout, Shalev watches the waiters whirl through the tables dishing up plates of black bread ice-cream and frozen berries with white chocolate sauce. “People are learning how to eat better. There is a change afoot, there is something in the air,” he says, with a smile.
Rachel Morarjee is an FT contributor based in Moscow