“Foreigners sometimes have a different idea about what Russian food is.” This phrase kept replaying like a skipping record with every step I took in Moscow. It was the reply that Nonna, who had been helping me with the process shipping my video equipment back to New York, had given me when I asked for restaurant recommendation. It was a reply that seemed to sum up my culinary quest in Russia. After spending three weeks in Sochi covering the 2014 Winter Olympics and finding absolutely nothing resembling that I thought was Russian cuisine experience, I began to wonder if Russia had forsaken its traditional food in favor of imported genres like Italian, Chinese, and Greek, or, even worse, Subway and McDonalds.
Just when I had about given up, an ex-Pat forum came to the rescue. I found a single line that recommended a small restaurant called Dacha na Pokrovkisy located somewhere in Moscow. I asked Nonna about the restaurant, but she had not heard of it. But she did tell me that “Dache” meant retreat or holiday, and that Pokovksy was a boulevard near my hotel. ( ‘na’ was Russian ‘in.’ I worked that out for myself) A search on Google Maps resulted in nothing except that Pokrovkisy boulevard bordered a park in the Kitay Gorod section of the city. Armed with this information, at about 7:00pm on my last night, I set out into the Moscow winter night to find what my idea about what Russian food was all about.
Finding Pokrovkisy Blvd. was easy, even if I did have to decipher the Cyrillic street sign, which took a bit of time. At this rate, if I were to stop at every sign to try in figure out where the restaurant was located, I would not have made my flight home the next day. I wandered into a car park and asked the two attendants, pointing to the name of the restaurant on a Post-it.
He spoke no english and after looking at the name on the paper, gestured he didn’t know the restaurant. He then turned to the other attendant and asked. After a moment, a smile of realization spread across his face.
“Da da da,” he said “Dacha na Pokrovke,” he corrected in broken english. “I know this place. Come I will take you.” It was a good thing he knew because without him I never would have found the place. We walked another three blocks down the park and around the corner, down a short ally, in the back of a crumbling mansion, we found the restaurant. Expressing my extreme graduated, I shook my guides hand with both my hands.
Dacha na Pokrovke is very much worth the effort. From the moment you walk up the flight of stairs, the atmosphere envelopes you in a cross between someone’s home and a displaced european cafe. At the top of the stairs, the narrow hallway opens up into a dining room with a small dance floor. Vintage recordings of Russian folk music inspired the four or five couples that tangoed across the floor. I was lead through a narrow door into a second dining room where I was seated between a 1930s radios and a Soviet era propaganda poster. The omnipresent scent of tobacco smoke tainted the air. Across from me, two young students studied something on a laptop, one sitting and one standing. Occasionally, the standing guy pointed to something on the screen, suggesting a change or confirming his approval. I like to think that maybe they were planning the next revolution, but most likely , they were two entrepreneurs working on their new business model. A few tables behind me, two other guys sat taking tea and smoking. One of them gestured wildly with all the determination of a playwright trying get his point across to a director.
Like the atmosphere, the food did not disappoint. Of course, for starters, I choose a classic: caviar with lemon and a daub of butter. I could have ended the meal right there and been happy, but the Russian hits just kept on coming. Next another classic: pelmeni. They are dumplings stuffed with a variety of things, but in this case, lamb, served with the ubiquitous sauce in Russia, rich sour creme.
I could go on and on about the meal, but won’t. Let’s just say that it was very good, from the starter to the desert, and as far as I could tell, authentic. The point of this experience was to connivence myself that places like Dacha na Pokrovke still existed in city like Moscow. It can be intimidating and that intimidation can lead you to rely on restaurants that are easy, but in the end unsatisfying. But if you take a little time and energy, you can leave a city like Moscow with hopefully a richer appreciation.