Russia Rediscovers Its Czarist Cuisine
Greasy soups and slabs of 'mystery meat' are disappearing as Moscow eateries return to finer fare of the old days
MOSCOW — ELENA Molokhovets, the author of czarist Russia's most- respected cookbook, had some simple advice for new brides endeavoring to keep their households happy.
''When unexpected guests arrive,'' she wrote back in 1861 when ''A Gift to Young Housewives'' was first published, ''send the servant down into the cellar for hazel grouse or a ham.''
Such bourgeois advice would have been greeted by guffaws in the Soviet Union. But pre-revolutionary cuisine is making a fast comeback in the new Russia, along with some of the absurdly decadent imperial traditions that accompanied it during the opulent days of the czars.
Foreign restaurants now dot Moscow's cityscape. But eateries for Russia's nouveau riche, often grandiose palaces that offer nothing but the best -- and most expensive -- ''national Russian cuisine,'' are fast gaining popularity.
The secret to a successful restaurant in Russia is ''opulence, expense, and fawning waiters. Don't serve anything cheap,'' says Lindy Sinclair, the Australian food writer for the Moscow Times.
''And ensure that on your menu there are certain dishes which inspire the continuity of Russian tradition,'' she adds.
At the Grand Imperial -- a tiny restaurant in a central Moscow mansion where Tchaikovsky performed one of his first works -- the ''Tsar Meat Course Romanoff Served Over Flame'' goes for a mere $185. The ''Sea Mussels a la Vladimir'' is $35.
And at the pre-Bolshevik Serebryany Vek (Silver Age), a larger venue nestled inside the ornate Sandunovsky Bathhouse built by a wealthy merchant for his many courtesans, customers can order stuffed pheasant and wild boar. After a sumptuous meal, the staff auctions off a single rose to the highest bidder -- often for more than $1,000.
Thanks to increased food supplies and a barrage of Western imports, dreary Soviet food, with its greasy soups, crude chunks of mystery meat, and thick slabs of salo, or pork fat, is being replaced by more palatable fare.
Even fast food -- ''fest fud,'' as it is called here -- is getting a Russian rehaul. Muscovites fed up with McDonald's, ''Burger Kvin,'' and New York ''khot-dog'' stands soon can nosh at a chain of Russian Bistro fast-food outlets. Subsidized by Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, the franchises will be ''based on the repertoire of the Russian national kitchen'' and will serve only blini (pancakes), pirozhki (pastries), and other traditional dishes.
This could come as good news for President Boris Yeltsin, a notorious meat-and-potatoes man, who remained unimpressed after dining with Queen Elizabeth II aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia in St. Petersburg last November. ''Russian food is better,'' he told reporters after a meal of Scottish salmon, Balmoral venison, and marquise of two chocolates.
Perhaps President Yeltsin, who probably dined daily on caviar during his days as a Communist Party apparatchik, was simply trying to display his proletarian roots, as peasant and worker diets differed enormously from royal ones in the czarist days.
''The masses ate shschi (cabbage soup) and kasha (gruel), while the rich had meals of many courses that began with lavish hors d'oeuvres,'' says chef Vladimir Bogomolov, who has worked at the Metropol Hotel across from the Kremlin for 43 years. ''They ate for hours, and they ate a lot.''
One of Mr. Bogomolov's favorite czarist recipes is a cold turkey dish, which arrives at the table swimming in a thick sweet-and-sour sauce. Plums, apples, and berries are marinated in a cinnamon- and clove-spiked syrup, and then mixed with salted-and-peppered cucumbers and carrots.
Referring to this cold-turkey dish, executive chef Douglas Page, an American from Freeport, Maine, says ''The interesting thing about that dish is that it breaks all gastronomic norms.''
But Mr. Page, who works with Bogomolov, prefers an ancient recipe for a lilac salad, made from fresh, tender lilacs popped from their shoots.
A dish that appeals to just about everyone has to be pel'meni, or Siberian ravioli.
Pel'meni lost ground over the decades when it became the standard fare of the masses. It was often served cold and sticky throughout Russia's vast network of cheap pel'mennayas and stolovayas, the no-nonsense, no-frills worker-style cafeterias.
But authentic pel'meni, if prepared with love and a few spices, can be a warm and deeply satisfying dish served either as an appetizer or an entree. Smooth and rich, with a slippery outer dough and a piping-hot meat filling, they are well suited to the freezing Siberian steppes that made them famous.
Siberians prepare several batches of pel'meni at once and freeze the rest. (Muscovites often buy frozen pel'meni at the outdoor stands or supermarkets, but they never taste as good as homemade.) For added variation, the meat-filled pillows are topped with sauces such as thick smetana (sour cream), fresh dill and butter, zesty tomato, or a clear hot bouillon.
''We serve pel'meni with smoked goose inside and a goat-cheese sauce outside. I also do a lobster pel'meni,'' Mr. Page says. ''I like to take indigenous dishes one step further, wild and wacky.''
But Bogomolov prefers sticking to tradition. He blends together three kinds of meat for his pel'meni filling: lamb, pork, and beef.
''The trick is to close the dough tightly with your fingertips so no air is left inside,'' he says.
For a simple yet delicious dessert, he recommends vareniki, or sweet pel'meni, filled with tvorog, a farmer's cheese similar to cottage cheese, and topped with a fruit sauce made from apricots, cherries, or apples.
A hot drink with a hefty dollop of vareniye (jam), completes this traditional Russian meal.