For pork fat and roaches, Russia is a diner's delight

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

March 16, 1993|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- For Russians, spring officially began March 1. Doubtful Westerners are slowly being persuaded it's true, even though snow is falling regularly.

The proof is in the pepper. Green peppers, which cost about $3 each a month ago, now can be had for about $1 each. Is there better evidence that spring must be on the way?

Food is a favorite topic here. Any Russian can tell you how much he paid for a cucumber two weeks ago, how much it cost two months ago and how much it cost two years ago.

He can tell you how long he waited in line to buy food, how there was endless food in the days of Leonid I. Brezhnev, who ruled the Soviet Union for 18 years in what became known as the period of stagnation.

He can tell you what kind of food is good for you -- lots of cholesterol-laden sour cream (nothing better!) or a nice slab of pure pork fat. (It helps the vodka go down.) And plenty of vodka. (It can cure anything, even exposure to radiation.)

But if he tries to tell you how to cook the food, don't listen. Russians here aren't good cooks. Restaurants here can be nightmares -- no matter what the season.

Some foreigners try to say the bread is good -- well, it's good if you compare it to the squishy supermarket brand sold in the United States, but it's nowhere near as good as a fresh loaf from the New System Bakery on 36th Street in Hampden, or anything Rudy's turned out, first in Hollins Square and then in Belvedere Square.

Here, you get white or brown. It's OK, and Russians consume massive quantities of it, but it's not great. Russians fill up on it, though, sparing themselves from more dangerous consumption.

The food situation is so bad here that the other day an English-language newspaper, which publishes a weekly restaurant review, listed the restaurants that give the worst food poisoning.

Here's one: "Two hard-core Vietnamese food lovers who ignored a warning walked out when they saw a migration of cockroaches across the serving platters. This place is not just unhygienic, it's vile. The clientele is sleazy, the floor show vulgar, and the food resembles nothing eaten by humankind. Two of us wisely avoided nearly every dish, but the omnivorous third paid the price of his folly for days."

Here's another: "I've eaten here several times with no ill effect, but those with delicate stomachs may prefer to stay away. One acquaintance saw a rat run across the floor, and later that night was gripped with such a violent bout of food poisoning that she fainted. If you dare to come, you will find filling dishes of potatoes, mushroom and pork in a cozy tavern atmosphere."

Another review approvingly described a $125 dinner for two (yes, one hundred twenty-five dollars) as a "cure for those who doubt that Russian food can taste good." The cabbage soup was fine, but the ice cream was pedestrian and the cake dry.

The most enthusiastic part was this: "This is a place to which one could safely bring visitors to try the native cuisine. No rats scurried across the floor (as in two other Moscow cafes we have tried), nor did we see any racketeers in fake Adidas warm-up suits."

It went downhill from there. The glasses were all chipped, the smoke was so heavy it made the reviewers' eyes burn, and the restaurant was out of much of what they ordered.

Food is fuel here, or an antidote to vodka. While the French were inventing fine sauces to gild unfortunate meat, the Russian nobility were importing French chefs to cook for them. Somehow, it didn't rub off. Bread, potatoes and cabbage were good enough for the peasants. Who had time to cook when you had to conquer Mongol hordes?

Well, OK, maybe it is possible to find a good meal here. Here's yet one more review from the Moscow Times.

"Instead of the usual Russian menu -- with the 'Cutlet from old Pozharsk recipe' and 'Fresh-shot game with cabbage and murkyberries' lined out on flimsy paper -- here the menu was ingeniously displayed on the wall above the buffet. And it had just what we wanted."

Here, eager Russians and American gourmands alike can get what is available nowhere else in Russia. Here, as the reviewer put it, you can get the same food that is served in the Clinton White House.

Here, you can dine in food-poison-free splendor and no smoke.

Welcome to McDonald's.

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