Russian food is to Russians as gypsy music is to gypsies — no-one wonders how it is done or whether it is authentic, so long as you can dance to it. This is one of the commo¬nest mistakes made by visitors to Moscow. In the evenings they look for restaurants with good Russian food. When they are greeted by a nyet at every door, they complain angrily. What they don’t realise is that the good Russian food was eaten at lunch. At dinner Russians prefer to drink and dance.
In time, Western fashion will reach Moscow. Dinner will become a precious and delicate exercise of no more muscle than the epiglottis and jaw. For this sort of work-out there is already the Savoy, just a stone’s throw from the KGB’s Lubyanka head¬quarters. If you have a vivid Cold War imagination, you might like to dress in black tie and tails, slick your hair back in the Sam Neill style, and pretend you are Reilly, Ace of Spies, taking a little Kamchatka crab and Georgian cognac, before crossing the square to match wits with Feliks Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Cheka, forerunner of the KGB.
If your espionage fantasy runs more to Alec Guinness and the mundane rather than the romantic, the National on Revolu¬tion Square is a better choice. This is where the hero of John Le Carrd’s Russia House stayed, though I am not sure that the Fred Schepisi film of the novel, recently shot here, has been faithful to the location. The windows give a fine view of everyone enter¬ing the hotel from the street, and the tablecloths are so freshly starched and white, they would show the slightest speck of blood. During the Second World War the US Ambassador and his fam¬ily were housed here; the dining has not been as good since.
Around the corner on Gorky Street, at the Skazka, the fare is much better, particularly the winter fish soup and the caviar blini. The waiters have also accelerated the movement between kitchen and table since MasterCard, Visa and American Express were introduced instead of roubles. But be warned — eat lunch, not dinner, at the Skazka.
Trapped between its midday Russian identity and Western dining taste, the restaurant has introduced a gypsy trio at 7pm. This is composed of a Jewish accordionist, a Ukrainian contralto, and a fiddler from the Moscow suburbs, each wearing embroidered boots and royal blue sashes. The result is a musical accompaniment that can’t be danced to, and which induces indigestion every time the trio screams “Hoy!”
As the Western restaurant reviewers have begun to de¬scend on Moscow, some very fanciful in-Iists have appeared. They have about as much to do with good eating as dissident Russian writing has in common with Chekhov. One US reviewer I know was enthusiastic about every cooperative restaurant that opened its doors, as long as its ownership appeared to be in what the American thought of as “private” hands. Once his reviews started to appear, however, the cooperatives saw more dollar signs than there are American food connoisseurs in Moscow at any one time. Prices became astronomical, and Russians — the real decision-makers for eating in Moscow — stopped coming.
Jeffrey Zeiger is a curiosity in this competitive business. He is an American restaurateur who has opened an eating establishment with a Russian partner and Russian food supplies and accepts roubles as readily as foreign currency. Open since
last October on Komsomolski Prospect, Zeiger’s restaurant is called Tren-Mos, after Trenton, New Jersey, and Moscow, whose city establishments have had a sister-city relationship for several years.
It is not difficult to find pleasant French, Japanese, Chinese, and Indian (mogul) restaurants around Moscow. Each is supplied from the home country, and has been imported lock, stock and barrel as well. The malai kofta and gulab jamun at the Delhi, on Krasnopresnenskaya, are as good as you will find in Delhi itself, perhaps a shade better.
Whenever the BBC or the New York Times announce an¬other round of panic-buying by Muscovites desperate for a can of sardines or a kilogram of flour, I telephone the Tren-Mos for a table. I especially enjoy taking Western visitors who believe Russia is on the verge of mass starvation to eat the Tren-Mos speciality, New York sirloin. A huge slab of meat, this is the favourite of all patrons (except me). Jeffrey estimates that his restaurant consumes one tonne from the markets weekly.
If the sirloin is too heavy or the gypsies too false, the new¬est Moscow dance sensation can be watched rather than partici¬pated in. Tatiana Shegelkova’s Theatre of Sport has been performing since the beginning of the year, and even numbers of the company (seven men, eight young women) find it difficult to describe what they do. Easier to say what they are. In the day they are car mechanics, physical education instructors, students, circus trainers. In the evening and on stage they combine gymnastics, acrobatics and erotic dance. Vassilina Sageleyeva explains that last year she won the world championship of art gymnastics. Her coach, Ala Nazarova, was a world champion herself. But now, both explain, when they must leave the sport and have nothing to do, the company has been formed to give them something to perform for, and an audience in the theatre.
Lithesome, tall, strikingly handsome, the men and women of Theatre of Sport acknowledge that they have yet to be discovered by the world. They performed at the closing session of this year’s Young Communist League conference, and during the in¬tervals of the All-USSR Gymnastics competition.
They are looking for a casino that needs a floor show. And they have written to the Australian Gymnastics Federation hoping for an invitation. There has been no reply, and in the meantime a Turkish cabaret owner has seen their potential and booked them for a lengthy tour. If the Turkish audiences respond enthusiastically, the Theatre of Sport may never return home.