- Food & Drink
DJ, Leonard and I are standing on a Moscow underground platform and we’re lathered in sweat. The weather predictions for our holiday had ranged from -4 to 26C and thinking that it’s better to be too hot than too cold, we packed for an Arctic Winter. We arrived to a mild Autumn in Moscow. As we trudged to our hostel, Hostel Chocolate, heatstroke and drowning in our own perspiration were higher on our risk list than being mugged.
Luckily for us, the temperature dropped with the sun and our thick padded jackets started to seem more like useful items of clothing and less like the affectations of excessively nervous Western tourists.
Like good, over-excited tourists, we spent most of our first evening wandering up and down the streets of Moscow shouting: ‘Ah, now I see where we are on the map!’ and feeling like we were really getting to grips with this strange, pastel foreign city. When we finally couldn’t ignore our hunger anymore, we abandoned the evidence of our eyes and ears and followed the guidebook first to a restaurant that was hosting a wedding (the bride and groom were swaying dreamily in each others arms to high NRG disco) and then to an Uzbek restaurant that had the same sound track and just as many punters. Broken by hunger and guidebook failure, we trailed down ul Petrovka past shops full of clothes we couldn’t afford, looking for the bright lights of an empty restaurant.
Leonard spotted Baraskha. It looked beautiful and there was no menu outside. As a general rule, if you can’t see the prices then you probably can’t afford them and we shifted around outside like nervous horses until, wild-eyed, Leonard stormed the door and demanded a menu. ‘We can afford this!” she shouted. Before Barashka knew it, they had our coats and we were sat on the first floor of cream and pale wood dining room miming ‘menu’ in our best Russian.
Barashka is a cosmopolitan joint and the menu came in English and Russian. To our waitress’ relief, this meant we could point at what we wanted. She bought us glasses of tea with sweet-sharp dried fruits, bread and spiced preserved meat to tuck into while we read the menu. A welcome way to start a meal when your hands are tingling with cold.
Barashka is an Azeri restaurant. For those of you who don’t know where Azerbaijan is, I am not the person to ask. It’s a bit near Iran and a bit Caucausy and my knowledge ends there, shame-faced and embarrassed. Food wise, it means lamb, and I had tender stewed lamb with home-made noodles that came swimming in a meaty broth, topped with a field of dill and coriander. If you’ve ever been outside on a cold night and wanted to come home to a cheering stew, then you will embrace this dish. The lamb had flaked into thick chunks and it sat on wide, paper-thin noodles that were slippery enough to justify shoveling them at speed into your mouth. Thick slices of pepper added warmth and sunshine and the enormous pile of herbs added the freshness that thick-set British stews often lack.
We had a bottle of Russian red wine with it, which our waitress picked for us. She warned us that it was sweet. We looked horrified and tried to mime: ‘We’d prefer a dry red Russian wine.’ (It was a good mime – don’t take us on at charades.) ‘Russian wines always sweet,’ was the response. Figuring it was part of the cultural experience, we went for it. It smelt of vanilla and berries and tasted the same, but with a firm edge of tannins to keep the flavours in check. There are sicklier red wines on sale in Tesco (shame on you Tesco).
For dessert we shared a plate of traditional Azeri sweets. These were candied hazelnuts, walnuts, almonds and orange peel. It was a dessert plate from a time when sugar was expensive and sweets a treat. With black coffee it was a better way to end a meal than gorging on a seven layer chocolate cake that makes you feel sick with indulgence.
The bill for 3 mains, 1 shared dessert, 1 bottle of wine, 2 coffees plus complimentary teas, bread and meat was 4,000 roubles – about £80 pounds. For people not from London, that may seem expensive. For people from London, who know how a floor-to-ceiling feature wall of pickled lemons and a team of devastatingly attractive waiters and waitresses can add up, it seemed reasonable. Our first meal in Russia. I count it a success.