While my trust in San Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants has recently wavered, it would still be out of my character that when in Moscow I would miss out on Anatoly Komm’s Varvary which, according to that list, is ranked no.48 and the only restaurant from Russia to make it in the 50 cut.
Guess I could say it’s “Russia’s best restaurant?”…
Who’s Komm? He is now Russia’s most celebrated chef and owns five restaurants in his homeland and abroad. Interestingly, the “chef” studied geophysics and kicked off his career in computer business. He, then, turned into fashion, travelling the globe accordingly. Despite a successful career, Komm somehow ended up in the kitchen in 2001 and, yes, 10 years later, he is S-listed. As for his style of cooking, Komm is a Russian advocate of molecular gastronomy.
Like most San Pellegrino restaurants, Varvary serves up gastronomy that isn’t cheap. Dishes are individually priced but the most sensible way to sample Komm’s cuisine is by undertaking the 11-course tasting menu costing 8500 rubles (roughly £190) sans drinks. Shockingly you can also opt for a meal tailored to your liking by the chef and paired with the world’s most sumptuous wines at 40000 rubles (£885) per person. We, of course, opted for the cheap(er) option… .
The price alone will make you start thinking how luxurious this damned restaurant will look. No. You are wrong. Varvary is situated on the top floor of a restaurant complex. If you look for a sign that says “Varvary” or “San Pellegrino”, you won’t find it. Instead, you’ll eye up for… a “Chicago Prime Steakhouse”. And there you go, tucked in the right wing of the “Steakhouse” building, Russia’s top gastronomic spot.
I walked past this dimly lit alley with its walled adorned with framed, ghostly white laces. Kinky? Then the lift transported me up to the top floor and opened to a heavily patterned, stuffy dining room, red and black contrast. Kinda 60-Minute-Makeover look but posher. Fortunately, I was led via a spiral staircase to this relaxed, nearly-contemporary-looking roof terrace. The view was as stunning as it got on a cloudy day. I somehow fell in love and relieved it didn’t boast a Turandot setting.
There wasn’t a long break before the dishes began to arrive. We took time admiring the beautifully engraved cutlery… they don’t seem to do this in the UK, no?
Tagged as canapes of “Original Russian Flavours” (1) these were Broccoli Cream with Cod Liver, Herring Mousse with Sorrel, Beetroot, and Sea Buckthorn with Cottage Cheese. My favourite was the delectably salty herring mousse on blini but the beetroot was the most interesting. Agar-like and not significantly sweet in itself, the chopped beetroot came with a sugary crystal that boosted its flavours. The sea buckthorn (in cup) was the heaviest thanks to the cheese.
Baked Oyster (2) A warm and creamy way of eating an oyster. Here the big one was gratinated in parmesan and chive sauce and served with lime foam and leaf. Ideally you’d throw it all in your mouth in one go. The cheesy sweetness was balanced by sharp but refreshing acidity and natural bitterness of the lime components.
“Spring Lawn” or Borsch with Foie Gras (3) Komm’s signature dish. Bite-sized pieces of caramelised foie lay on beds of shredded duck meat. There was this frozen “boule surpris” of chive and sour cream. Hot, menacingly red borsch to pour over. Oh, and before I had this, the waiter handed me a full shot of ice cold vodka to cleanse my palate. Komm’s reinterpretation of the Russian tradition is magnificently intensely flavoured. The glossy soup had this intensity of an acre of harvested beetroots. The melting ball of sour cream fused the velvety thickness with the surreally liquid state of the soup, while the candied foie brought about luxurious meatiness. Truly sensational. Best foie gras in my life.. !!!
Ice-Cream “Gazpacho” with Lobster Bisque (4) the low-light of the meal. Okay gazpacho ice cream with peppery aftertaste. Let down by the pointless pouring of hot, bland and rather insipid bisque over. The dish became a pool of awkward lukewarmness. Period.
Soup with Langoustines and Squid Essence (5) Gargantuan raw and cooked langoustine tails garnished with buttery roe cream and seaweed. Smoky-licious squid consomme to be poured over and minimally poaching the raw tail. All worked. Accomplishedly smoky flavours, but .. yes “but”… half way through the meal I got a little bored with soupy dishes.
Dumpling with Kamchatka Crab (6) So pretty (but more soup-y sauce WTF?). A little dumpling with a thumb-sized king crab (one of Russia’s best ingredients) in this silky courgette sauce and toppled with jewellery-like salmon roe. The tour de force ingredient came as this snow of sour cream. Chilling, chilling. But surprisingly I did not find it numb my palate. I could still taste the al dente crab filled dumpling very clearly and the sauce of modest buttery sweetness. As much a revelation as the foie gras ^_^
Silver Cod with Peas and Beans (7) Again one of the most breathtaking presentations. Stunning cod water-bathed to perfection. Odd and bland combination as I could barely taste the beans or the watery herb infused sauce.
Potato with Dill and Red Caviar (8) This looked rather like a mushroom with salmon roe on top. Weird.. don’t get me wrong.. I bloody loved it. Texture perfect. Highest quality of roe provided bubbles of fishy saltiness to the mashed potato ball which when cut burst out this pungent truffled cream. The pool of dill jus was not at all aggressive but soothing. One of the best..
Veal on the Bone with Pepper Sauce (9) A sort of spectacle was attempted. Veal on the bone to be sliced at my table. The red meat aroma reactivated my saliva bud. Sadly the pepper sauce turned out (again) soupy and accompanied by pepper jelly. Clear and unmistakably pepper-y, it turned the dish into a rocky relationship. Deep fried mushroom-filled cigars were crispy and lovely though.
“All About Honey” (10) I paused… do I eat the flower or no? do I? I took a petal and .. spat.
The rest was heavenly. Honey of many kinds – sticky comb, freezing sorbet, spongy cake, and honey cylinder! There was this acidic sharpness from dehydrated strawberry crumbles to hack through this multi-dimensionally sweet dish, too. I <3 it. This was followed by the petit Four of strawberry jam pot, chocolate pot and potato truffle. All very decent.
End of meal.
Varvary was interesting. Komm’s molecular take on Russian cuisine is not all the way scientific. One of his feet is firmly set in the tradition. Dishes receive a molecular makeup rather than a chromosomal makeover. Dishes are unique but never alienating in a way that many molecular restaurants are. Komm is a gastronomic pioneer and truly deserving his spot on the San Pellegrino list. Though I couldn’t say I thoroughly enjoyed all the dishes and had issues with the soup-y-ness, ones that worked were truly fireworks. And reflecting on my experience now I feel I could do with a return to Varvary.
Oh and in case you wonder about the drinks? We only got still water.. (not quite rich enough to afford wine there!!).
The bill was presented to me in a lacquered case.. and well it’s acceptably (not heartbreakingly) pricy.
My head rating says, “8.5 out of 10″.
My heart rating says, “8 out of 10″.
8A Strastnoy Boulevard/ Страстной бул., 8А
Tel. + 7495 229 2800