The Red Square by day, Cafe Pushkin by night. Exactly four years ago was my first week in Russia with Daddy. Halfway into the trip I told him I wanted to learn Russian and stay forever so I could buy one of the full-length fur coats displayed in every store window in the three blocks between the Marriott and the Kremlin. I never did learn Russian, but I’ve wanted a fur coat ever since. I briefly tried on a $9,000 mink at Neiman Marcus in the Houston Galleria (tad out of range), but even in thrift stores I never found a fur for less than $50, much less one in good shape. Well well well—just goes to show how full circle we’ve come. The day the Navy sends us our bought-and-paid-for plane tickets to Tokyo, I found a Neiman Marcus hip-length fur coat while dropping stuff off at Goodwill. I asked how much. The lady disappeared into the back. $10. $10!! The lining was a little stained, so while I’m hand-cleaning it I’ll have to wear the darker one (no stains, perfect condition, different brand, also $10). Chris’ comment: “Wait. You’re wearing Space Boots and a woodland creature.” “No silly, it’s fall’s hottest look—forest of the future!!”
And just for nostalgic’s sake, here’s a review of the delightful Pushkin Cafe that was commissioned by a travel magazine that never got off the ground, so I eventually posted it on ChefMoz. This is where Daddy and I did shots of vodka with the British coworker, a former MI5 who spoke five African languages.
Here, the luxuries of the ancient czars wrap subtly around the entire restaurant, creating not an atmosphere or ambiance, but rather an invitation and inclusion into Old World Russia. The pianist is playing Mozart’s “Rondo alla Turca” downstairs, and the music sifts through the smoke as it rises to the mezzanine on the third floor, reaching us like a dream, hushed and exotic. I have walked into a real-life Casablanca.
The first floor remains open twenty-four hours as a café with a reputable bar, while the restaurant itself resides upstairs. The second and third floors resemble an Old World private library, with antique telescopes, globes, and bookcases reaching from the second floor to the top of the third. I pulled down a book. It was all in French, and the copyright was 1862. Two statues of the Egyptian goddess Bast, a slim black cat with a golden collar, greet guests on the second floor and overlook the staircase. Bast is the goddess of sensual pleasure, especially music and perfume, so I wasn’t surprised when, over the course of the evening, the music alternated between piano, violin, clarinet and the harp.
Our party began with a round of the house cocktail, a light, refreshing cranberry concoction with a hint of orange. Following the cocktail, we were offered a choice of four types of bread with our wine: a deep red, presented to and approved by our host. In fact, everything was presented to our host before consumption, even the exotic, imported bottled water. I started with the crab salad (£17). Topped with caviar and olives, it was surprisingly light and fresh but perfectly satisfying. I hated to destroy this architectural wonder, but the aesthetic wound of its destruction was trumped by the smooth satiation of the tender crab, the melting saltiness of the caviar garnish and the tangy sweetness of the black olives. Unsure as to whether or not I was expected to consume the greenery that arrived atop the salad, I ventured a small bite. No, one is not expected to taste the greenery. It is simply a garnish. The turbot (£42) was excellently spiced – interesting, yet still smooth and delicate, it melted in my mouth with hardly any assistance. Still, I preferred the grilled vegetables to the fish; the red bell peppers in particular had a very pleasing, subtly sweet taste.
The restrooms are perfectly in line with the rest of the atmosphere. The old-fashioned water closet, which guests pull a chain to flush, as well as the toilet and sink are porcelain covered with blue painted flowers – just like my grandmother’s special china. The walls, a deep blue with gilded trim, coordinate beautifully, glowing like a sapphire jewel in the rich light.
The vodka itself, brewed here in Moscow, is somehow simultaneously smooth while burning like fire. My mouth and nose crinkle in its heat and fumes as I try my best to down the shot like the Champion of Other Cultures I like to imagine that I am. I fail. Tears leak from my eyes and the ever-jollier table roars in amusement at my discomfort. But it’s not over yet. The toasting does not stop until everyone at the table has ordered a round of shots and made his or her own eloquent (and usually increasingly lengthy) speech. Dinner arguments are apologized for and forgotten, and the unity of the table increases until it is necessary for the evening to end. Russian toasting is not just an amusement; it is an experience.
Long after midnight, fully four hours since we arrived, the party agrees to disband. I feel like my heart is breaking, losing this treasure I entered so unexpectedly earlier this evening. All the romance and adventure, excitement and intrigue I dreamed of while watching Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart in Rick’s Café Americana has somehow materialized this evening. Now, as we are leaving, I see it twisting and rising into the air with the smoke lifting off the now extinguished cigarettes. Still, as we rejoin reality and the cool summer night, I know the world will always gleam a little bit brighter because of this evening.
[12 Oct 2004 23:27:48] Recommended Dishes: Crab Salad. Mari Saugier, Houston