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.

In a city with more billionaires than anywhere else in the world (36 and counting, according to Forbes), Novikov unapologetically caters to the fantastically rich post-Soviet.

"Arkady Novikov is the master. Any place that carries his signature is the most fashionable," says Kseniya Sobchak. The daughter of the late St. Petersburg mayor, Sobchak has become Russia's first "It girl," famous mostly for being famous at age 22.

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."

Arkady Novikov, rejected for a job at Moscow's first McDonald's, has built his own dining empire of 60 restaurants.Novikov's latest restaurant is Gallery, left and right. The decor runs to muted blacks and chocolate browns, and the walls are filled with photos of gorgeous women. Since its February opening, it has been packed every evening.