Letter From Moscow

Restaurateur Whets Russia's Rich Appetite

By Susan B. Glasser
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 2, 2004

MOSCOW -- Fine dining in Russia was still an oxymoron when Arkady Novikov opened his first restaurant in the early 1990s.

Food was a practical matter, dining out a frustrating exercise in what was available, which usually came down to mayonnaise-laden salads, over-fried cutlets of indeterminate origin and side dishes heavy on the sour cream.

Opulent palaces for the newly rich had sprung up, places that were all about what Novikov calls "the show": Silver Age, where the gimmick was a nightly auction of a long-stemmed red rose in which the going price usually topped $1,000, or Maxim's, where managers fondly recounted stories like the one about a $20,000 tab run up by the Moscow mayor and his friends and paid on the spot -- in cash.

Novikov, a Soviet cooking school graduate rejected for a job at Moscow's first McDonald's, had a different idea. He would sell good taste to the city's fledgling capitalists. "They didn't know there was a difference between Pepsi and Coke," he recalls, or, in some cases, even "how to use a knife and fork properly."

He doesn't look like the food guru of the oligarchs. The 41-year-old has no burly bodyguards and he's wearing a T-shirt, not a few thousand dollars' worth of Italian-label clothes. His cell phone is the only office he has, and his only assistants are the waiters who take care of him at lunch.

But Novikov is the undisputed restaurant king of the new Moscow, his growing empire of 60 restaurants an encyclopedia of food chic in a booming city. Admirers say he has taught a generation of rich Russians how to eat and drink well.

He has grown along with his customers, Novikov says. "They've been to the best restaurants in the world by now. They know the difference now between good mozzarella and bad, and even between good mozzarella and very good."

Moscow is the scene of more hot restaurant openings than anywhere in Europe, according to industry analysts, who say that Russia is riding a wave of oil dollars right into the haute cuisine kitchen. Not a week goes by without a sleek new spot opening -- experts don't know precisely, but they say 30 to 40 restaurants are starting up each month -- and none is more popular than Novikov's.

Even he can't remember how many restaurants he has opened in the past year. "Maybe 10," he says. "I'm not counting really." Each restaurant costs at least $1 million, Novikov says, and he brings in London interior designers and Italian chefs and French partners to make them happen.

"Novikov is a brand already," says restaurant critic Svetlana Kesoyan. "Each new restaurant of Novikov is an event."

"During the last two years, we've had many restaurant openings -- and most of the grandest belonged to Arkady Novikov," says Oxana Soleil, executive director of Restaurants' Rating Moscow. Her firm will release the first Zagat-style guide to the city's hot spots this fall, and three of the top five are Novikov's, she says. While many complain in their surveys about the high prices for less-than-world-caliber food in Moscow, Soleil says, when it comes to Novikov's places, they just want a table.

There's a little bit of everything in the rapidly growing Novikov portfolio -- highbrow ethnic at eye-popping prices, sleek French-inspired Asian fusion, czarist hunt country, jet-set generic. Some, like the chain of Yolki Palki bistros he started in the '90s, are mid-priced spots aimed at the emerging middle class. But the restaurants he is famous for are the upscale ones, where Mercedes SUVs line up outside and checks easily hit $100 or more per person.

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