Best Aristocratic Atmosphere
Plunge into the refined opulence of 19th-century Russia at Cafe Pushkin (Moscow; 26a Tverskoi Bulvar; tel. 495/229-5590) as you spear a bite of suckling pig or sip fine tea from a silver samovar. It opened in 2000, but the three-story restaurant's careful design and popularity make it seem like an imperial-era landmark.
Best Comfort Food
One of the most reliable, reasonable Russian menus in Moscow is at the basement restaurant/bar Uncle Vanya (Moscow; 16 Pyatnitskaya; tel. 495/232-1448). Literary and musical memorabilia line the walls, and the placemats teach you the Russian alphabet. Favorites are the buckwheat kasha and their dumplings (pelmeni or vareniki) with meat, potato, or berry fillings.
Leading restaurateur Anton Novikov has capitalized on Russia's growing obsession with Asian cuisine without surrendering to it at Vanil (Moscow; 1 Ostozhenka; tel. 495/202-3341). The menu is relentlessly fresh; a recent option was a soup of duck livers and oysters. The soaring ceilings and massive chandeliers seem built to the scale of the staggering Christ the Savior Cathedral across the street.
Best Fresh Fish
The spare stone arches of St. Petersburg's Restoran (St. Petersburg; 2 Tamozhenny Pereulok; tel. 812/327-8979) evoke another era, but its elegant lines and innovative chef keep things thoroughly modern. The unobtrusive salad bar offers marinated Russian specialties. The fish is so fresh you can forget any fears and indulge.
Best Georgian Fare
The generous cuisine of Georgia, in the herb- and sheep-covered Caucasus Mountains, is best sampled at Genatsvale (Moscow; 12/1 Ostozhenka; tel. 495/202-0445). Exposed wood and lace curtains provide the perfect home-style setting for cheese-filled khachapuri loaves or lamb marinated in pomegranate juice. Georgia's southern climes also inspire spicy vegetable dishes sorely lacking in Russian cuisine. The same family runs Mama Zoya and another Genatsvale locale. St. Petersburg too has plenty of Georgian restaurants.
Best Literary Dive
Just a small streetlight above the entrance marks the bohemian vegetarian basement cafe Idiot (St. Petersburg; 82 Moika Canal; tel. 812/315-1675), named after a Fyodor Dostoyevsky novel. Mulled wine warms visitors in the winter months; lightly fermented kvas cools you in July. Pick a book in English from the cafe's eclectic library to peruse while you sip.
Best Kitschy Theme Dining
Three elaborate and pricy Moscow restaurants plumb the stereotypes and cuisines of Russia's neighbors. Shinok (Moscow; 2 Ulitsa 1905 Goda; tel. 495/255-0888), a Ukrainian farm with a chicken coop, is hidden on one of the city's hippest streets. Aromatic borscht is served here 24 hours. Prisoner of the Caucasus (Moscow; Kavkazkaya Plennitsa; 36 Prospekt Mira; tel. 495/280-5111) offers grilled lamb and garlicky eggplant. Waiters are decked out as mountain warriors. White Sun of the Desert (Moscow; Beloye Solntse Pustyni; 29/14 Neglinnaya St.; tel. 495/209-7525) offers central Asian cuisine like lamb pilaf and spicy dumplings.
Best Quickie Meal
Yolki-Palki is a Russian chain with basic sit-down service in a country kitchen setting. It's also kid-friendly, a rarity on Russia's otherwise up-to-date dining scene.
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