Russians Spicing Up London Restaurant Scene; Entrepreneurs from Moscow Have Recently Infiltrated the Closed World of Elite Restaurants in England's Capital

By Matthews, Owen | Newsweek, June 17, 2016 | Go to article overview

Russians Spicing Up London Restaurant Scene; Entrepreneurs from Moscow Have Recently Infiltrated the Closed World of Elite Restaurants in England's Capital


Matthews, Owen, Newsweek


Byline: Owen Matthews

Russians are taking over London. No, we're not talking about high-end real estate or even Premiership football teams. We're talking food and drink. Unlikely as it may seem, London's newest generation of restaurateurs comes from Moscow--and their restaurants are among the most innovative and popular arrivals on London's crowded food scene.

Most of these new restaurants don't serve Russian food, but let's start with the exception that proves the rule: Zima on Frith Street in Soho, which opened in April and is the brainchild of Moscow chef and food critic Alexei Zimin. Zima's shtick is Russian street food. Truth be told, Russian street food isn't actually a thing. For pressing climatic reasons, Russians are strongly inclined to eat indoors for most of the year. "I wanted to create a place that would fit in among the new hipster-ethnic food places," says Zimin, whose rotund figure and luxuriant ginger beard give him the look of a Tolstoyan landowner. "But at the same time, I wanted it to be absolutely Russian in spirit."

A Moscow take on a club sandwich, for instance, is made with Georgian-inspired spicy chicken tabaka and salted cucumbers. Zima's pelmeni are made with venison, while the poached salmon comes with sweet beets and sour cream and the herring with pear. You can also load up on real black Oscietra caviar in any quantity you can afford. It's priced at 1 pound a gram--a bargain, relatively speaking--and it's the real malossol kind, lightly salted (malossol means "little salt") and fresh, not like the pasteurized stuff that comes in tins. Blinis, with sour cream and potatoes on the side, arrive on a cheap enameled tin plate.

Zima is reported to be inspired by Soviet ryumochnaya--literally, a shot glass joint--a kind of Soviet stand-up bar serving vodka and open-faced sandwiches. Late on weekend nights, the place has a kitschy, raucous, speakeasy feel to it. This may have something to do with the staggering collection of infused vodkas, ranging from the familiar pepper and cranberry to horseradish, sea buckthorn and curry leaves. Concerning the last: We tried it so that you don't have to. Curry vodka is one cultural mash-up too far.

Zima is cheap and cheerful. Novikov, just off Berkeley Square, does not attract the bargain hunter. The decor is minimalist Mayfair international: Turn left for the Asian section, right for Italian and straight on for the achingly tasteful lounge bar. Moscow restaurant king Arkady Novikov opened his 19,000-square-foot emporium four years ago--and now reports that it's turning over [pounds sterling]25 million ($36.6 million) a year.

It's not just bling that attracts the billionaire crowd. On the Asian side, the food is stunningly well-executed: It includes langoustine tartare that tastes of open blue ocean, umami-rich crispy moray eel, and hamachi carpaccio so fresh it almost swims into your mouth. And Novikov has embraced the farm-to-table philosophy by growing much of his produce at Brent Eleigh Hall, near Lavenham in Suffolk. Not that bling is absent, mind--Novikov London's website features a "private jet and takeaway menu" offering marbled Australian Waygu beef at [pounds sterling]72 ($105) a pop and Sicilian red prawns at [pounds sterling]67 ($98).

Novikov owns 50 high-end restaurants in Moscow--all one of a kind--as well as 50 more restaurants belonging to various chains. He says he expanded to the U.K., where he now has three restaurants, because London is one of the most competitive restaurant markets in the world. "You need to show yourself you can do better," he says.

The financial crisis in Russia has also accelerated Russian restaurateurs' westward move. Ginza Project, another Moscow restaurant behemoth, began the expansion of major Russian restaurants overseas six years ago with branches of its unashamedly nostalgic Mari Vanna--decorated like a Soviet communal apartment and serving traditional Russian food that a babushka would make--in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and, since 2012, in London, where Prince William and his wife, the Duchess of Cambridge, have been spotted sipping borscht. …

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