Photo: © KRISTY ALPERT
MY EXCITEMENT WANED as he approached, holding a straw and a bottle of what appeared to be Russian vodka. I had come to the White Rabbit restaurant specifically to uncover something unexpected about a rumored underground culinary scene supposedly growing in Moscow, and I held back my disappointment at the thought of such an expected Russian spirit landing on the table so early in the meal.
In just one breath my waiter simultaneously had me hold out my palm while he inserted the straw into the bottle and pressed his thumb to seal the liquid in the cylinder. “Polugar,” he stated, pausing to let the strange word float about in the air, “was the original Russian spirit, predating vodka and made from freshly harvested wheat.”
Not another word was spoken as he placed one drop of the spirit on my palm, prompting me to rub my hands together vigorously until the liquid heated and disappeared. “Now please slowly place your open palms in front of your face and inhale through your nose.” I did as he directed, and the scent of freshly baked bread soon overwhelmed my senses.
“Your first course, madame,” he smiled as he bowed his head and returned to the kitchen to gather my next course.
Less than a decade ago, Moscow could have been described as an epicurean desert, the dust of state restaurants and imported goods still settling as the city began to stand on its own two feet. It wasn’t until a government ban on European imports caused a number of chefs and farmers to rise up and take pride in the land that words like “creativity” and “self-expression” began to be heard once again on the streets of Moscow.
The city is now home to three restaurants on San Pellegrino’s 100 Best Restaurants list. Chefs such as Vladimir Mukhin at White Rabbit and brothers Ivan and Sergey Berezutskiy at Twins Garden literally breathe flavor back into the city with their inventive cuisine and use of Russian ingredients like freshly foraged mushrooms, rustic birch bread and locally made cheeses. These are paired with wines from an amazing group of young Russian winemakers.
Once again the city blooms as a culinary capital fit for a czar — only this time vodka and caviar take a back seat to inspired ingredients and creative cooking.