Making a five-star meal out of stolovaya classics like Kiev-style cutlets and borscht may sound like a waste of time to those who have been soured on Russian meals by one too many mayonnaise-and-dill salads. But the staff at 1 Krasnaya Ploshchad, a restaurant inside the State Historical Museum, aim to change that.
They brought out the history books and went to work digging up aristocratic fare lost in the Revolution and perfecting Russian classics as well. Chef Alexander Filin used his 30 years of experience as a chef to touch up dishes that were once popular with tsars and their foreign visitors and also revitalize peasant classics like okroshka soup and drinks like kvas. He's out to prove that not only is traditional Russian food tasty, but exotic as well, with sweet and tangy items like kedra - a liquor made from pine nuts.
So, since this is a restaurant in a museum. Is it geared toward tourists?
No, not at all. This is a restaurant for anyone who likes Russian food. However, it is one of the exhibition halls of the museum. This restaurant is a chance to become better acquainted with classical Russian food. We try to serve historical dishes here. You know, recreate what people used to eat in Russia. We research our menu. We look for dishes in the archives and details about how and where they were served. Even if you look on the wall, you can see menus with items from the past. We also have a children's menu with a fairy-tale theme. They can color on [their menus] with crayons. Our beef dish for "future officers" is particularly popular. On the menu, we explain what the dish was and where it was served.
Has Russian food changed significantly over the last 200 years?
Oh, yes, it's changed a lot, but there are classics that have always been popular. Okroshka [cold soup served either with kefir or kvas], for example, is a classic that people still eat today. The quality of cuisine is getting better now, and that's in part thanks to all the foreign chefs that have come to Russia and boosted our culinary standards over the last 10 years. But I love cooking Russian food. I've been doing it for 30 years now. You might say I've been propagandizing Russian food for a long time. I've worked in the Russian embassies in the Netherlands, Switzerland and the United States, where I used to prepare traditional Russian dishes. Now is a good time for Russian food. We finally have access to products that we couldn't get for the last 30 years, and that allows us to prepare a lot of the aristocratic dishes that we stopped making.
So, what were the tsars' favorite dishes?
Well, that all depends on which tsar you mean and when he lived. To be honest, I can't tell you exactly what each tsar used to eat. The last tsar, Nicolas II, was fond of fish and soups. We do serve classical banquets, though, in our hall for about 60 to 100 people.
Oh, no. They didn't have buffets in the tsars' time. We do it the historical way. It's a long meal. It starts with soup, then a cold snack followed by a main dish. Then you might have a sweet hot dish, then a sweet cold dish. You can have as many as 10 to 13 courses. It's a long process, about three hours. But it's not just dinner. We play music from the same period and have period-perfect dishes. We try to make it an authentic experience. It's something we usually do for holidays and other special occasions, religious or otherwise.
Is there a historical period that's more popular than others?
I suppose the 19th century is the most popular, Russia's Golden Age.
What traditional drinks do you have on the menu?
Lots. Vodka, kvas, mors, mead and beer, too.
But what did people used to drink with dinner?
Well, kvas, mors, vodka, beer - those are mostly peasant drinks. Aristocrats would have had the same things we drink with dinner now, wine and champagne. We also have kedra, a strong vodka made from pine nuts. You can taste the nut; it's sweet and has a specific taste. We make all our traditional drinks here. Kvas is a bit difficult to make if you're not familiar with how to do it, but it's fast - it only takes about two days. Mead is simple, but takes about a month, and the kedra takes about 57 days.