In contrast to the quiet elegance of Pushkin, Varvary was tres modern in an over-the-top yet tongue-in-cheek style. G called it oligarch style.
But. There were the troubling reviews online. And here’s where you have to parse the reviews. For example, I’d venture to say the reviewers who complained chef Anatoly Komm didn’t come out to greet them or offer them a kitchen tour … more about them than the restaurant? Just because you dropped a boatload on a meal doesn’t mean the restaurant owes you a special something-something.
And then there was the ride there, where our taxi driver circled around, looking for the address. This in spite of GPS. When we finally got there, he tried to charge twice the agreed-to fare (in Moscow one agrees to the fare before one gets in). So with all this in mind, we walked into Varvary, went up the elevator and into the sumptuous dining room.
It was a small dining room, and at 8:00 on a Wednesday evening, we were the only table, although there was a private party upstairs. Our server handed us two menus and when we asked about the tasting menu, he told us it had to be ordered in advance. In other words, no dice.
Now I was annoyed. First off, I was convinced I would see Alex Ovechkin at Varvary. Yes, I’d lived multiple years in the same city he inhabited and never seen him off the Verizon Center ice, but I just knew I’d see him at Varvary. No Alex (although other tables of patrons joined us later in the evening). I also had not been told we had to order the tasting in advance, although that was certainly the reason we went.
After a polite but somewhat insistent give and go, our server relented, talked to the chef and made an exception to serve us the tasting menu. After about three courses, our server warmed up to us and asked where we were from. Ah, he thought we were obnoxious American barbarians, tourist sheep, bleating around Moscow demanding private kitchen tours and complaining about the ingredients. Got it.
In the end, food and love of food trumps language, overcomes cultural antipathies, dispels stereotypes and all that. Dinner was excellent, Russian yet modern, molecular and textured, flavored, seasoned, sophisticated. Even the dishes I didn’t think I would like (see egg yolk), I appreciated and enjoyed. And no, I didn’t whine about an igredient, that’s the point of a tasting menu, to try different things.
We started with a taste of Russia, with traditional black bread with salt (Game of Thrones Red Wedding, anyone?) and black bread with a “ball” of sunflower oil, powdered beets in a lovely pattern, a shot of Jerusalem artichoke soup, a “sushi” made with a Siberian berry as the wrapper with goat cheese stuffed inside, another “sushi” made of beet and pickled herring to be dipped in a pink beet-based sauce. And the herring really tasted like sushi – pretty amazing. A good sign of recovery from the rough start to dinner.
Next, East Asian oyster – delicious, plump, salty with fresh and pickled cucumber
Caviar three ways: on top of scallops and then mixed into the pea puree. Yeah, I thought I was going to lick this bowl clean, cocker spaniel style.
Cod with egg yolk, injected with a cod-based sauce, bits of powdered, freeze-dried flowers, herbs, vegetables, fruits, etc. I was a bit worried about this one, but the egg yolk tasted just velvety and rich, no egg flavor at all, not even an after taste. And the textures and juxtapositions were incredibly interesting and unexpected.
Borscht, made from a savory duck base, chunks of duck liver (yum!) and a hollow, frozen sour cream shell, melting into the soup. This was my first encounter with borscht, and it was terrific. Also, our server’s favorite.
Cep (some type of fish – I wish I had a better descriptor) with truffle sauce
Slow-cooked red shrimp, cooked at a very low temperature to preserve the flavor of the sea. The texture was slightly crumbly, while still moist and just cooked.
Grilled and roasted quail with an eggplant napoleon, topped with powdered berry
Fish dumpling in foam with a side of freeze dried something or other
Veal sweetbreads – divine, rich, flavorful
Raspberry cloud, think fluffy cross between mousse and marshmallow on top of fresh berries
All about beets – ice cream, cake, crisp and my favorite on this plate, tiny chewy marshmallow type tidbits
Our server called this “potato,” a beautiful spoon of sweet cake, matched with jars of homemade raspberry jam and mousse and a hazelnut or some type of nut whip (think: kit kat broken down, swirled with hazelnut)
A terrific tour of Russian flavors and textures, served in modern luxury. It’s good to be an oligarch, if only for the day, cuz here comes the check (!)