A chip off the old Bloc

The undisputed king of Moscow dining is putting his stamp on London’s restaurant scene. It’s a long way from his start as a Soviet-era chef, as he tells Bill Knott.

November 27 2011
Bill Knott

It is 9pm on a summer night in Moscow, the setting sun glinting off onion domes. The grand, white-pillared Bolshoi restaurant, a mere blini’s toss from the famous theatre, is filling up with the city’s new beau monde: glittering jewellery, coiffed hair, elegant silks, designer shoes. And that’s just the men. The women totter on vertiginous heels, swathed in opulent gowns, while a grand piano plays gently in the background and fine art hangs on the walls. It is the sort of place where, 140 years ago, Vronsky and Anna Karenina might have caused a minor scandal by dancing together.

Except that the restaurant is just a couple of years old. It was built by Arkady Novikov, the Russian restaurateur who owns a controlling share in 60 or so Moscow restaurants: he is habitually vague about the number, perhaps because it changes from month to month, if not week to week. It is quite an achievement for 49-year-old Novikov, graduate of the Soviet-era Culinary Institute 174, who did not even taste olive oil until he was 33.

Now, as he walks through Bolshoi’s main dining room, stylishly dressed down – as is his habit – in jacket and jeans, arms extend to greet him from every table. Later, he rises from his own table to commandeer the steak tartare trolley, expertly coaxing meat, egg and seasonings together for his guests. He seems very much at home.

Bolshoi specialises in French and Russian food, but Novikov’s Moscow portfolio spans myriad cuisines: Cantinetta Antinori, for example, whose name is licensed from the Florence original, serves impeccably tidied-up Italian cucina rustica and oceans of Super Tuscans to a reasonably discriminating and profoundly wealthy clientele. There is also Courchevel, however, a bizarre, subterranean, Alpine-style ski chalet-cum-karaoke club, aimed at an altogether younger, livelier crowd. Energetic singers bounce around to Abba songs, thrusting radio microphones into customers’ hands and persuading them to join in from their seats. And, thanks to a deal with Condé Nast, there are the glitzy GQ Bar, Tatler Club and Vogue Café. There is also Syr, a cheese restaurant whose moulded yellow interior is designed to resemble the inside of a Gruyère. There are restaurants specialising in nostalgic dishes from Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan, as well as top-notch Japanese kitchens and pan-Asian joints.

Now, however, Novikov has turned at least part of his attention to London – his first foreign venture – where he has opened two restaurants and a bar. Given his penchant for elaborate décor, lengthy menus, prestigious neighbourhoods and moneyed regulars, the cavernous site on Berkeley Street (once the ill-starred La Rascasse and Café Grand Prix) was an obvious target. Due to have opened last week, its revolving door leads to a ground-floor “Asian Room” and, downstairs, the “Italian Room” and a rather swanky cocktail bar add further options to the Russian dishes. In all, more than 400 diners can be accommodated in the three rooms.

For Novikov, it’s the latest chapter in an extraordinary rags-to-riches story. His parents divorced when he was seven; he grew up in a one-bedroom Moscow apartment with his mother and grandmother, and stayed there until he was 20. “I had no dreams, no ideas,” he says. “I wasn’t the brightest at school; I wanted to go to university, but I failed to get in.”

A trade beckoned instead. “I could have been a plumber or an electrician – I had to go somewhere – but I ended up at culinary college.” Once there, learning the staples of vaguely French-influenced Soviet cuisine, but with precious little access to good ingredients, something clicked. “It was very significant: suddenly I really liked what I was studying. I even tried to show my grandmother how to chop potatoes properly.

“I was 17. Some boys grew up earlier, but that was when I found what I wanted to do with my life.” He achieved a distinction at college, and promptly left for two years in the Russian army. “My main responsibility was supervising the dog squad, including their feed: a couple of pig’s heads, cereal, a bag of potatoes, plenty of water, and also tongue, which we used to steal for the soldiers. We would go AWOL to get food in local villages: the local people always fed and watered us. I still have a string of dried fruits that an old lady gave me. ‘But I have no money!’ I told her. ‘No money required,’ she said.”

After the army, Novikov started work as a chef at a Moscow hotel. “The chef there was a big guy, and he taught me a lot, but the most important thing he taught me was to be the master of my own destiny.” It cannot have been easy being a chef in Moscow in the 1980s. A couple of dozen restaurants existed, but they were, by all accounts, bleak places to dine, frequented by party apparatchiks and the occasional visiting academic or businessman. Most chefs worked in office or factory canteens, doing their best with a dearth of fresh produce.

Novikov gained a place at Plekhanov Academy of the National Economy, studied hard in the evenings and graduated in 1988 with a diploma in catering economics; it was also where he met his wife, Nadezhda, who now runs Moscow’s smartest florist, Studio 55. His big break came while working at a Hard Rock-style eatery in Gorky Park. “It was an exhilarating time. It wasn’t a touristy place, but rock stars used to turn up sometimes: Jon Bon Jovi, for example.”

Novikov borrowed $50,000 to start his own restaurant, based in an old college canteen, “but we had real problems serving everyone. We just didn’t have the ingredients,” he remembers. Nowadays, many of Novikov’s restaurants feature tables groaning under the weight of fresh produce, perhaps an unconscious response to the days when the cupboard was bare.

Novikov changed the menu from meat to fish, of which there was a more abundant supply, then called the restaurant Sirena and installed lots of aquariums. “It was like walking into an underwater kingdom,” he says. He has never looked back; nor has he forgotten the importance of interior design as a way of capturing customers.

Some of those customers at Sirena became regulars, and started badgering him to open more places. “They would tell me that they had some premises available, and why didn’t we open a restaurant there? So I became more experienced, met more foreign chefs and gradually moved into more of a management position.” His businesses expanded rapidly. A budget chain of cafeteria restaurants serving hearty Russian food, Yolki-Palki, was an early hit, expanding to 40 outlets before Novikov sold it for a reported $70m four years ago to finance other projects.

The dozens of restaurants that have followed are almost exclusively high-end, mainly because there is still only a small Russian middle class. The Moscow restaurant business is still in its infancy, and his super-rich clients are quickly bored, demanding something new and shiny as often as possible. The “scene” is at least as important as the food, but Muscovites still insist on a vast choice of dishes: short, focused menus are unheard of in Moscow, where – whatever the restaurant’s supposed cuisine – you may well find sushi, toasted sandwiches and pasta on the same menu.

London, as Novikov knows, will be different. He has assembled a strong team for the project: Stefano Stecca, head chef of the Italian Room, has worked at many of London’s top Italian restaurants, including Zafferano and Floriana; New Zealand chef Jeff Tyler, whose sample dishes deeply impressed Novikov, heads the brigade in the Asian Room; and Caroline Taylor, formerly at China Tang, is the general manager. Prices are modest, certainly by Moscow standards.

Back at Bolshoi, Novikov’s real passion for food is evident: he is not simply a businessman who opens restaurants to show off to his friends. He comes alive when discussing his beloved Russian food over a glass of kvas, a sort of yeasty brown ale made from rye bread. He adores pirozhki, little glazed buns stuffed with meat, beetroot, sour cabbage or egg, and pelmeni, delicate little Siberian dumplings served in a clear, dill-spiked broth: look out for both on the bar menu in London.

The food of Italy is his other great passion. He owns the late Gianni Versace’s four-storey neoclassical palazzo, Villa Fontanelle, on Lake Como, having paid a reported $55m for it three years ago, but his taste in Italian food is humbler: he can talk for hours about the beauty of bread, tomatoes or the perfect mozzarella.

He is quick to dispel any notion that his new London restaurants will simply be hangouts for homesick oligarchs. “Nobody will be able to come in and say, ‘Aha! This is a Russian restaurant!’” His ambitions, however, are as simple as his restaurants are grand: “I’m not here to start a revolution. I just want to create good places to eat.”