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Moscow’s new gourmands

Marketplace Staff Aug 17, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: Russia’s getting serious about its desire to join the World Trade Organization. Today Moscow threated to limit US meat imports if Washington doesn’t play ball. The US is the only country holding out against Russia signing up. Meat could be a pretty effective bargaining tool. Russia is the largest single importer of US poultry — 742,390 metric tons a year, to be exact. And it’s not all McNuggets. Moscovites are developing a taste for fine foods. But Michael Idov reports gourmets in Russia need a little patience.

MICHAEL IDOV: High-end CafA© Vesna is nestled on the ground floor of a grim Soviet-era skyscraper. The mood is light. The food is classic Italian. The well-to-do clientele will not settle for a low-class homegrown tomato.

BRUNO MARINO [interpreter]:“The Russian produce, it’s just not good enough.”

Bruno Marino, the chef at Vesna, came from Sicily over three years ago. Bruno arrived in Moscow armed with classic recipes from his village, but couldn’t find the ingredients to make them come to life.

MARINO [interpreter]:“In Italy, there’s quality control. In Russia, there’s none of that. Especially dairy, like milk and cheese.”

And there lies the caveat for the caviar set. Moscow’s new ruling class — businessmen — demand authentic flavors of Paris and Rome. A task Russian farms are simply not up to. To get cuisine of that caliber, the number one ingredient in a plate of Moscow fettuccini is, well, an airplane.

MARINO [interpreter]:“Takes about three hours for milk to come from Italy. If the plane sits too long on the tarmac, we lose everything. In the summer, it gets too hot, and everything rots. In the winter it gets too cold, and everything freezes.”

The wizard who makes this happen, for this and over 50 other restaurants in Moscow, is Arkady Novikov. Novikov is Russia’s Wolfgang Puck and Donald Trump rolled into one. If he were to go out of business, the entire dining scene would vanish. The so-called “Novikov’s System” relies heavily on hunting down world-class chefs and their favorite ingredients.

ANTONIO [interpreter]:“There was a rumor that I was looking for a job. Novikov found out, and the next day I was employed in Moscow.”

That was Antonio, another Italian expatriate. He was a cruise-ship chef nine years ago when Novikov came calling. He now runs the “flagship” of Novikov’s empire, a seafood restaurant called “Sirena,” or “Siren.”

ANTONIO [interpreter]:“The best way out is to find fish that were still swimming this morning — not last night — and fly it in.”

Getting fish from ship to plane to restaurant without freezing it is a feat worthy of the Olympics, and results in a $30 to $50 price tag on the dish.

ANTONIO [interpreter]:“We have to refuse over half of the fish. That’s why our prices are much higher than in Europe. We’re much more expensive than the best European restaurants. If customs holds the packages for more than three or four hours, the entire shipment is gone.”

Three or four hours, though, is a blink of an eye for the Russian customs, infamous for holding FedEx packages for three or four days. It helps that Mr. Novikov has friends in high places. But what about those who don’t?

NELLIE KONSTANTINOVA [interpreter]: “We haven’t reached the level where a great mom-and-pop restaurant could sustain itself.”

Nellie Konstantinova is an editor at the Russian Vogue magazine. She is also one of Moscow’s top food critics. She notes the biggest problem of Moscow’s air-based fine-food culture is there is no room for small players. Their fish will rot at customs.

KONSTANTINOVA [interpreter]:“The situation will change only when there’s a normal middle class.”

As those magazine ads say, “Our fish travel first-class.” In the new Moscow, those in coach are stuck with a familiar option: chicken or beef.

For Marketplace, I’m Michael Idov.

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