Restaurateur Whets Russia's Rich Appetite
She says Novikov is Moscow's leading restaurateur because he knows his restless, over-monied audience. "Arkady understands better than I do that in Moscow a restaurant can't be fashionable for a long time -- there always has to be something new," Sobchak says.
Gallery is Novikov's latest creation. It is quiet at lunchtime in this tasteful, Armani Casa sort of a refuge in muted chocolate browns and blacks. Oversize photographs of gorgeous Moscow women -- Novikov's florist wife included -- displayed on the walls give a hint of what kind of place Gallery is when it comes into its own at night. The exhibit is titled "Beauties," and that is how the Novikov clientele likes to think of itself.
Since its February opening, it has been packed every evening -- men in just-so banker-striped suits, women in the latest plaid miniskirts. The menu is a study in freedom of choice -- no lectures here about the proper way to spend one's newly acquired funds. "To understand food, you need money," Novikov says.
Service, as at almost all Moscow restaurants regardless of price, is still hit or miss. "Nobody's taking care of the guests," Novikov reproves a waiter at Gallery.
This current epicenter of chic is only a few blocks from Novikov's other see-and-be-seen spot of the moment, Vogue Cafe. A joint venture with the Conde Nast glossy, it is hung with pictures of many of the same models who frequent the restaurant. He acknowledges that the dining experience in some of his restaurants is secondary to the tysovka experience, the Russian equivalent of a happening. "Good food is just a plus," he says.
In the past few years, there has been an outbreak of good taste among his customers, who spend as much as ever but profess to do it more discreetly. "Simple food" is their new mantra, dieting and yoga their new hobbies. A craze for sushi inaugurated the minimalist era among the Moscow elite; today, raw fish is a staple of nearly every ambitious restaurant menu in the landlocked city, regardless of whether the rest of the dishes are Mediterranean or Russian or Chinese.
At first, Novikov says, he resisted the sushi mania. Today, he owns three Japanese restaurants and sushi turns up on his other menus as well. "I struggled for a long time against Japanese," he says, "but then I did it anyway." What could he do, after all? "Sushi is probably less popular in Japan than it is here." He gives his public what it wants.
Kesoyan, restaurant critic for the magazine Afisha, says that while Novikov is famous for being fashionable, she likes his restaurants because they are centers of innovation, bringing a "European attitude" to Russia. Novikov, she says, was among the first to understand that "the time of the Disneyland restaurants is over in Moscow."
Novikov is "not afraid to experiment," she says. At Vogue Cafe, he hired a Russian chef -- a daring move -- and put kefir, a traditional Russian drink of sour yogurt, on the menu along with European dishes. At Gallery, Kesoyan points out, "he serves chicken cutlets -- absolutely regular home cooking -- as well as the expensive cognac."
Like his clients, Novikov didn't start out with a yearning for truffles and brandy. He grew up Soviet poor in an apartment so small there wasn't room for a bicycle even if his family could have afforded one. His mother, a kindergarten teacher, and grandmother were good cooks in the Russian tradition, but mostly that meant doing well with what was available. They ate fried meat and fried potatoes with mushrooms and kasha (buckwheat porridge) when there was no meat, which was often.
In the late 1970s, Novikov's dream was to become a chef at a Soviet embassy, a glimpse at the forbidden world just as alluring to him as the idea of cooking. He signed up as a member of the Communist Party. "In principle," he says now, "I even believed."
When McDonald's arrived in 1990, Novikov joined the line of applicants and became one of the city's most famous rejectees. Even today, he says, he thanks McDonald's executive George Cohon every time he shows up at one of Novikov's restaurants for having the good sense not to hire him.
In 1992, Novikov borrowed $50,000 from a friend and scored his first hit with Sirena, a fish place with an aquarium in the see-through floor.
In the beginning, he was not immune to the lures of "the show." Most of his early successes were variations on it, gaudy theme spots like White Sun of the Desert, with a Central Asian decor based on a popular Soviet-era film of the same name, Russian girls dressed as belly dancers, live cockfights and an overflowing buffet of Uzbek delicacies costing $70 or more a person. The main hint of what was to come was the food, which was far better than at the other showplaces of the era.
"There is no show now," he says, "the time is all but past."
His new dream is a restaurant that would serve a Russian nouvelle cuisine, based on traditional foods but lightened up and modernized. But his latest project is an Italian food-and-wine place in partnership with the Italian wine firm Antinori. The idea is fewer models and more serious eaters.
Novikov calls it his "first real restaurant."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company