A few years ago, Moscow was a city that offered little in the way of choice for dining. Now it faces a new dilemma. The restaurant scene is booming, with choices ranging from exotic to traditional, Russian to fusion cuisine. With fabulous new restaurants opening almost every week, Moscow will soon be competing with London and Paris.
As a rule, I avoid hotel restaurants. They tend to cater to a very exclusive traveling public or so I thought, until I got a last-minute invitation to the Gallery restaurant at the Ararat Park Hyatt. I still had my doubts as the menu was being handed to me judging from the luxury of the hotel lobby, I suspected this place was going to be terribly expensive. I was wrong, and reasonable prices were just the first of many pleasant surprises.
This restaurant is a real treasure. Having pulled an exclusive French chef, Jean-Francois Durand, from Oman and sent him to Moscow, the Gallery now offers its customers the very best in fine dining.
The decor is sparse and elegant, with opaque glass walls separating different sections. The furniture is simple but beautiful, and soft lighting adds to the privacy and elegance of the experience. The waiter epitomized grace and elegance, proving himself a perfect host. He and his team did their work efficiently and discretely.
I was accompanied by two male companions, and we were joined at the last minute by two more friends of ours. With five of us dining together, I was delighted that I would get a chance to hear about every dish on the menu.
The menu is brief and well chosen, presenting an array of delicate appetizers and soups, and, for the main course, either a recommendation from the chef or a choice from the grill.
Choosing from among the zucchini and Canadian lobster salad, the fresh foie gras terrine and seven other mouth-watering appetizers, I decided on the grilled vegetable roulade with balsamic di modena vinegar reduction ($9). Around the table, the others had fallen for a variety of starters: One tried the green pea puree soup ($6), another the foie gras terrine ($15), and yet another lover of goose liver ordered the exotic pan-fried foie gras with onion jam and walnut dressing ($15).
Ordering the main course was an equally pleasant experience. I ordered grilled black tiger prawns on a lemon-grass skewer, and from the selection of side dishes chose mushroom fricassee. Because of my unorthodox combination of main and side dishes, choosing an appropriate sauce seemed impossible, so hoping they wouldn't be laughing at me in the kitchen, I chose the lemon and caper sauce and hoped for the best.
One of my fellow diners whose relationship with me is, shall we say, an intimate one coincidentally made exactly the same order as I did resulting in some catcalls from around the table.
A friend from London chose slow-roasted lamb shank gremolata ($21), while another picked the pan-fried Canadian lobster with bourbon vanilla sauce ($29).
The wine was poured into our glasses while we were still looking at our menus, and an abundant amount of fresh bread was served. The white wine was a Chablis La Chablisienne, 1999, wonderfully balanced in taste and temperature. The red was a Californian Robert Mondavi Woodbridge Merlot, 1999, a popular and exquisite American wine.
As a highly uncommon gesture at Moscow restaurants, everyone was served at exactly the same time, during both the first and main courses.
There wasn't a single disappointment during the meal. In fact, it was all as spectacular as the menu made it sound. My doubts about my choice of menu items was unwarranted, as every item on my plate went fabulously with the others. My prawns were fantastic, and I didn't leave a single bite. They had been grilled to perfection with a baked lemon on the side.
The lamb was cooked deliciously red and tender, and the owner of the plate was very satisfied. Nobody talked business as often happens with this particular group of friends instead our thoughts had turned to food. I had already decided that, on my next visit, I must try the lobster with cream sauce that one of our guests was having.
The portions were abundant, and, even though we were certainly not left hungry after the first two courses, we all decided to indulge in a desserts.
One of the recommendations from the kitchen was strawberries with green-pepper corn ice ($8). Three of us opted for it, and it was truly divine. The strawberries were flavorful; the ice was creamy and delicious.
We finished the meal with coffee and tea and started looking for excuses to linger in the restaurant.
Now, you would think indulging in all this luxury would cost a fortune, but the appetizers ranged from $8-$15, and the main courses between $16-$29. All my hesitation about eating in hotel restaurants has been blown to pieces.
This restaurant stands at a place where three decades ago, I am told, there was a cafe called Ararat, a fantastic place where people used to queue to get into. Today, in a city that is filled with choices, the Gallery could once again be the jewel in Moscow's crown. It is truly one of the best restaurants in the city.