Wandering Chef: Jansen Chan in Moscow
“The crazy thing about Russia is that the restaurants really cater to the customer. If you want Italian food in America, you go to an Italian restaurant. But in Russia, almost every restaurant has Italian food on the menu. Most of them also have a sushi station, as well as a juicing station where you can buy pear juice or celery juice. And these are fine dining establishments that are not inexpensive. The newer, hipper restaurants really have to deliver what the customer wants because the customer has clout and money. There is not a huge middle class in Russia. The wealthy and well-to-do are the ones who go out to eat.
Aist Café (Malaya Bronnaya Ul. 8/1, 7/495-940-7040, aistcafe.ru) was a very extravagant restaurant. They served Russian food, Italian food, and sushi. They also had an amazing honey cake (below) that I became obsessed with. Honey cake is found all over Moscow. It is a classic Eastern European dessert and I’ve since seen it at places in Brighton Beach. I describe it as the predecessor to the icebox cake. It’s made of layers of honey cookie (nine or ten to be exact) that have been stacked with sour cream sandwiched in between. The cake sits overnight and the cookie softens from the cream and has a soft, delicate texture. Even though they call it honey cake it’s not very sweet, but has a subtle honey flavor laced throughout. The version I created at Oceana when I got back incorporates a toasted ground walnut crust to give added texture and richness.
When I asked the team at Aist what I should eat in Moscow they told me that Georgian food was really popular and directed me to a restaurant called Khachapuri (10 Bolshoi Gnezdnikovsky Lane, 7/985-764-3118, hacha.ru). It was more of a casual café than a restaurant and they served the delicious stuffed cheese bread for which the café was name after. Khachapuri (below) is a specialty bread of the region and there are different versions. I think we had the best version, which was stuffed with soft cheese curds. As soon as the bread is pulled from the oven the bakers add a raw egg and a pat of butter to the center and they let it sit so that the egg cooks ever so slightly. The result is a golden brown crust that breaks open to reveal soft stretchy cheese curds and a runny yolk. It was my favorite thing I tasted on the trip. Oceana’s chef Ben Pollinger and I split one and two bites in we ordered a second. Be warned, your hands will be greasy when you eat it.
Café Pushkin (26a Tverskoi Bulvar, 7/495-739-0033, cafe-pushkin.ru) is a very famous and very elegant restaurant. Everyone is in blazers and the servers always have a napkin in hand. The menu features hallmarks of Russian cuisine like borscht and beef tongue, and, of course, honey cake. Dining there felt like being at the Four Seasons in New York. It was so old-school, like we were in a different era. The odd thing about Café Pushkin is that it’s open 24 hours. It’s actually one of the few 24-hour places I found in Moscow.
When I wasn’t in the kitchen or eating at restaurants I stopped at all of the major sites like Red Square and the Kremlin. But I think my favorite part of Moscow, other than the honey cake and the khachapuri, was the subway system. Moscow’s subways were built in the Cold War era and have chandeliers and statues. They are so well maintained and amazingly pristine considering how many people ride the subway.”