Food sanctions have unexpectedly transformed Moscow into one of Europe’s hottest dining destinations.
Falling back on soviet stereotypes, many people still assume that Russia’s cuisine consists primarily of borscht, blini, and mayonnaise. But even after the Iron Curtain collapsed, local chefs didn’t exactly revolutionize Russian dining. Most opted to pursue foreign schools of cooking, creating a restaurant scene largely dominated by Italian, French, and Asian offerings. “Five years ago, you found the same few international dishes – pizza, spaghetti, risotto, fried sea bass – in every restaurant in Moscow,” says Vladimir Mukhin, head chef of White Rabbit, a high-end establishment currently ranked 18th on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
But change is afoot. In 2014, the Kremlin imposed food sanctions on the United States, Canada, Australia, and much of Europe, meaning products such as American beef, Italian Parmesan, and French oysters could no longer be imported into Russia. Rather than condemning Moscow to become a fine-dining desert, however, the sanctions have reinvigorated the city’s restaurants.
Russian farmers fill gaps in a supply chain formerly dominated by foreign goods, while a burgeoning reverence for locally sourced products rivals that of Brooklyn or Portland. Mukhin, who began cooking exclusively with Russian ingredients prior to the sanctions, now finds himself at the forefront of a group of entrepreneurial chefs who are transforming Moscow into one of Europe’s most interesting and dynamic culinary destinations. As he says, “The young chefs, the new generation from our wave, they have started to change the system.”
Nouveau Traditional – White Rabbit
White Rabbit Restaurant & Bar in Moscow
To step into White Rabbit is to enter a Lewis Carroll tale – albeit one starring a Slavic Alice. The food, like the decor, is whimsical and bold, drawing on more than 600 years of Russian culinary tradition. Servers explain dishes’ historical and cultural significance, ensuring that each bite is infused not only with distinctive flavor but also meaning. “Our food looks like it’s from the future, but the taste is from the past,” Mukhin says. “It is the real taste of Russia.”
ORDER THIS: While White Rabbit offers an à la carte menu, opt for the exquisite tasting set. A delicious journey down this Russian rabbit hole may include bread made from birch-bark flour; swan liver served in traditional yogurt alongside house-made apple marshmallows and fresh berries; and roasted elk tongue dumplings with eel. Smolenskaya Square, Building 3, Floor 16; whiterabbitmoscow.ru
Produce Pioneers – Lavkalavka
Farm Restaurant Lavkalavka
No Moscow restaurant better epitomizes local eating and drinking than this one. Founded in 2009 as a farm food cooperative, the establishment created its own elaborate organic certification system (Russia still doesn’t have a formal one) and introduced the capital to the concept of farm-to-table dining.
The group now operates five farm stores in Moscow – perfect for stocking up on portable delicacies for long train rides – plus a café and two restaurants. Menus favor indigenous, heirloom produce and give shout-outs to the men and women behind each ingredient. “We want to revitalize Russian villages by helping family farms sell their food,” says cofounder Boris Akimov.
ORDER THIS: Menus change with the seasons, but recent editions included the “triple onion,” an appetizer composed of tiny mountains of house-made onion confit nestled among leek chips, pickled onion, and dabs of red currant sorbet; and a homey rye pasta with reindeer, lingonberries, and sun-dried tomatoes. (Twenty percent of the proceeds from the pasta dish went toward a festival aimed at revitalizing a fishing village on the Barents Sea.) Petrovka Street 21-2; lavkalavka.com.
Russian Challenge – 15 Kitchen + Bar
15 Kitchen + Bar
What began as a pop-up restaurant recently settled in at what is now a hipster-filled, perpetually busy permanent location. To keep things fresh, the owners invite a different young international chef to take over the kitchen and reinvent the menu every three months. “In the beginning, all our guest chefs want ingredients they can’t get, but in my opinion, this is one of the best parts of the job here,” says chef Marat Odom. “They start to think in different ways than they are used to, and they try Russian ingredients that they’ve never seen before.”
ORDER THIS: Menus change quarterly. Recently, Edward Delling-Williams, formerly of Au Passage in Paris, offered a rich chicken liver and foie gras parfait balanced by a tart rhubarb compote, and lightly fried calamari with fresh broccoli and candied lemon. Pozharskiy Lane 15; 15kitchenbar.ru.
Meat Eaters’ Delight – Voronezh
Servers wearing red lipstick dish out 30 different types of steak at this cathedral for the carnivore. Named after the region from which the restaurant sources its beef, Voronezh spans multiple stories, which house stylish dining rooms, a casual downstairs bistro, and even a sprawling butcher’s counter for takeaway or – for some enthusiastic patrons – meat selfies.
ORDER THIS: Steak is the way to go, and the menu includes helpful flavor descriptions and notes on anatomical origins for those unfamiliar with more obscure cuts, such as tomahawk and bavette. Prechistenka Street 4 .
Dumpling Date – Lepim i Varim
Pelemi by Lepim i Varim
Pelmeni, or Russian dumplings, have been a staple of Siberian cuisine for centuries, harking back to the days when hunters packed sacks of the bite-size morsels for long trips into the frozen taiga. While still popular today, pelmeni tend to be associated with subpar ingredients.
Not so at Lepim i Varim (“Create and Boil”), a trendy café specializing in artisanal Siberian dumplings made to order by grandmotherly types who expertly manipulate sprawling sheets of dough. “It used to be easier to find dim sum in Moscow than pelmeni,” says cofounder Nikolay Serdotetskiy. “It’s our dream to show the world that we do have interesting food here in Russia.”
ORDER THIS: All 12 dumpling varieties are delectable, but orders of the “Famous Shrimp” (prawns and chicken), “Tender Barbarian” (cottage cheese), and “Mom’s Siberia” (pork and beef) provide a solid start. Choose from nine sauce accompaniments. Stoleshnikov Lane 9, Building 1.
Cheese Connoisseurs – Syrovarnya
Located in a former brewery, this restaurant-cum-fromagerie makes five types of cheese on-site. Pick up a sandwich to go or settle in at a picnic table in the expansive outdoor space. Alternatively, the rustic, industrial-style indoor space offers diners the opportunity to watch both dinner and cheese being made in open kitchens.
ORDER THIS: The menu features simple dishes, most of which include cheese, and all of which are made with local ingredients. Start with the exceptionally fresh arugula and tomato salad topped with stracciatella, a pillowy, shredded cheese. Move on to spareribs with buckwheat and cabbage, Karelian trout with potatoes and rosemary, or a family-size portion of stroganoff. Finish with tiramisu, featuring Syrovarnya’s own ricotta. Kutuzovsky Avenue 12, Building 1; en.novikovgroup.ru/restaurants/syrovarnya.