An amuse bouche of rye bread and minced beetroot topped with a capsule of organic sunflower oil; pickled herring salad re-imagined as a sushi roll; and the stodgy Soviet-era dessert of "chocolate potato" engineered into a delicate mouthful to be slurped from the end of a silver spoon.
It's unmistakably Russian food, but in a new incarnation. Every evening, Russian super chef Anatoly Komm serves up a 15-course tasting menu for 25 diners at Varvary, and this week his restaurant was the first ever Russian establishment to make it into the prestigious World's 50 Best list.
When the list was released earlier this week, there were no great surprises at the top. Copenhagen's Noma topped the list again, while Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck remained in the top five. But hiding towards the bottom, at number 48, was something entirely new – Varvary, the 44-year-old Komm's flagship Moscow venture. Its inclusion is another sign of the food revolution that has been taking place steadily over the past decade in a city that just 20 years ago hardly had a single private restaurant.
Varvary is at the extreme end of the spectrum, but across the restaurant sector, prices are coming down and quality is improving. "As Russia boomed economically, Moscow became so expensive that normal restaurants couldn't afford to pay rent," says Alexei Zimin, editor of Russia's leading food magazine and the co-founder of Ragout, a French brasserie that opened in central Moscow last year. "The extreme ends of the spectrum – fast food and extremely expensive restaurants – flourished. But there was nothing in the middle. Over the last five years, that has gradually been changing."
Of course, Russia did not start from a level playing field. Just 25 years ago, the only restaurants in the capital were grim, state-run cafes for workers and the occasional restaurant visited by top Communist officials. Varvary is the Russian for "barbarians", and the name is a play on the reputation of Russians in Europe for lacking sophistication in matters culinary – or indeed anything else, says Komm. He says Russians themselves were partly responsible for this reputation, but also insists that, when prepared correctly, Russian cuisine can be exciting. "Foreigners come here and they're quite surprised at the things that can be done with Russian food," he says.
Russian guests sometimes leave his restaurant in disgust at what he has done with traditional Russian dishes. "The worst case was with high-level government officials," he says. "They got angry and left. I'm talking about very high-level government officials. But then that's always been the way in Russia. The great artists have been repressed."
Komm is a prickly character and not short on self-confidence, drawing comparisons between himself and cultural figures, such as the composer Dmitry Shostakovich, whom he says were unappreciated during their lifetimes. The majority of visitors to Varvary are foreigners, he says. "Haute cuisine is only for a small percentage of the population everywhere, but while in Europe or America it's between 3 and 10 percent who appreciate it, in Russia it's more like 0.001 percent," he says.
But, however slowly, Russia is changing, he says. His most valued customers are members of the emerging middle class who save up for several weeks to dine at the restaurant, where the set menu costs close to £200 per head before you even order a glass of wine. "These are people who made their money themselves, they didn't steal it, and these people are the reason I keep working here."
Komm was educated as a geophysicist, but when he graduated – as the Soviet Union was in its death throes – there was no work for him, so he went into business as an importer of designer clothes. Throughout the 1990s, Komm travelled the world buying clothes for his business, but made sure to sample the best restaurants in every city he visited. "If a chef did something I didn't know, I would go into the kitchen and offer him money to show me how to do it," he says. In 1998, he opened his first restaurant, as the owner, but soon noticed he was spending all his time in the kitchen, and so in 2000 he sold the fashion business and became a full-time chef.
Like Blumenthal or Ferran Adrià, the Catalan founder of El Bulli, Komm's food is based on experimental "molecular" cuisine – investigating the science behind food preparation – and this is where his geophysical education comes in handy. The idea behind such cuisine is simply to understand food on a molecular level, he says – something even the Soviets knew about. Take the basic stolovaya, or canteen, where everything would be served with smetana, the Russian version of sour cream. The head of the stolovaya would usually steal around half of the smetana and take it home to his family, says Komm, filling the rest of the pot up with water so nobody would notice the absence. But in order to disguise the theft, they would have to add a special thickening agent called methylcellulose, which thickened the smetana the more water was added. "This was the best example of the use of molecular technology in the Soviet Union," Komm grins.
At Varvary, sunflower oil is served in tiny, shiny capsules created using a technology that the Soviets used to make artificial caviar. Komm also borrows a technique first used in the 1960s to create food for cosmonauts.
Not everyone can afford the tasting menu at Varvary, which takes 18 chefs all day to prepare for its 25 diners. But, says Zimin, going to restaurants has become a normal part of life for the average Muscovite. "Going to a restaurant used to be a luxury, now it's just something normal that people do," he says. "And deciding what restaurant you want to go to for dinner is no longer about being seen in an expensive place. It's now simply a decision about what you want to eat for dinner."
Komm's Signature Dishes
Three traditional Russian dishes
*"Herring under a fur coat": slices of pickled herring, mixed with mayonnaise, and topped with beetroot and carrots
*Kholodets: not for the faint hearted, this is cheap, minced-up meat suspended in a huge lump of aspic jelly
*Borscht: the traditional Russian soup, usually served with plenty of smetana (sour cream) and dill (the Russian national herb, sprinkled on everything from salads to pizza)
Three New Moscow favourites
*Caesar Salad: It's hard to find a Moscow restaurant that doesn't have Caesar Salad on the menu – ranging from the sublime to the sickening (lettuce leaves replaced with cabbage)
*Flat veal chop with celeriac pure and caramelized fennel: From the menu at Ragout, Alexei Zimin's restaurant – one of the new range of reasonably priced tasty eateries springing up around Moscow.
*Vareniki (dumplings) with Kamchatka crab: From the Winter 2010/11 tasting menu at Anatoly Komm's VarvaryReuse content