BY ANDREW O’REILLY
IT’S BEEN nine long years since Russia slapped a ban on sturgeon caviar exports from the Caspian Sea. The country was acting in the interest of the fish—its population was in precipitous decline— but that was cold comfort for gourmands who had to fork over $100-plus an ounce for the pearly black fish eggs. This year, with farm stock at a healthy level, the ban has been li ed, and 330 pounds of sturgeon caviar are now being exported to the European Union.
Like black truffles, what makes this caviar so prized is its rarity. Ninety percent of the world’s sturgeon reside in the Caspian Sea, and the fish don’t lay eggs until they are 15 years old. Of the three types of caviar derived from sturgeon, beluga is the largest and most expensive; osetra has an assertive and nu y flavor; and sevruga—the most affordable, at around $50 an ounce—has a briny taste and small eggs.
Purists say caviar should be served in a nonmetallic bowl filled with ice to prevent oxidation, and then consumed with toast or crackers. But there’s no wrong way to eat it. To feel more Russian, try it with sour cream, blini and a shot of ice-cold Russian vodka.
Moscow chef Anatoly Komm is best known for transforming peasant fare into avant-garde cuisine that no self-respecting babushka would recognize. At his flagship restaurant, Varvary, he’s served capsules of borscht, deconstructed pelmeni and black bread that’s so dehydrated it’s got the appearance and texture of dirt. It’s exactly the fare one might expect from a former Soviet geophysicist using cosmonaut cooking equipment. And the tourists who dine there—90 percent of his customers—eat it up. And yet, many of Moscow’s wealthiest local diners don’t quite get what he’s doing.
“Russians understand what it means to have a big boat, jewelry, a good car,” he says. “But to understand art, you need more than just money.”
The 43-year-old enjoys being the bad boy of the Moscow dining scene. (He’s turned away a cigar-chomping oligarch and his bodyguards for being too…oligarchish.) The name of his three-year-old restaurant means “barbarian,” and it’s a cheeky acknowledgement, he says, of the way much of the world still views Russian food. To help change those perceptions he’s been hitting the road, his luggage stuffed with Russian ingredients like black bread, sunflower oil, smoked fish and pickled herring. In the last year he’s been to Cannes for a three-day chef conference and done guest chef stints in Switzerland, Austria and New Zealand.
Eventually some of the diners he serves make it to Moscow, where Komm conjures his reservation-only all-night “gastronomy show”—10, 12 or 14 courses of intricately plated new Russian cooking. Though his techniques were first inspired by a visit to El Bulli in Spain—birthplace of so-called molecular gastronomy—his ingredients dogmatically put the motherland first, eschewing imported luxuries favored by the country’s moneyed class. “I know the map of Russian products,” he says. He sources the crawfish in his “Russian carpet” dish from the Don River on the outskirts of Moscow. The crustaceans are served on a bed of smoked salmon and celery gelée with lemon foam and bright green and red “caviar.” “It’s my gastronomic joke,” he says. The bubbles are artificially conceived by adding droplets of pureed herbs and Tabasco to a chemical bath, a process known as spherification, once used by Soviet food scientists to transform liquefied fish heads into fake sturgeon caviar.
In fact, many of the high-tech gizmos now deployed around the world in cutting-edge restaurants had industrial uses back in the U.S.S.R. Komm’s freeze-drying machine is the same sort once used by the cosmonaut program to prepare foods for outer space. It’s just another quirk of the chef whose geophysics career ended when he became a Versace importer at the suggestion of his girlfriend. The career shift opened him to international travel. In 1991, on a visit to Hong Kong, he decided on a whim to learn Chinese cuisine, convincing a cook with a stall near the seafood market to take him on as an unpaid apprentice. That monthlong stint led to others in Germany, Spain, the Caribbean, Italy—vacations spent slaving in restaurant kitchens for fun.
Eventually a friend convinced him to put all that food knowledge to use, bankrolling Komm’s first Moscow restaurant, the Palazzo di Spaghetti. That led to a grill-house called Green, which finally gave way to Varvary, often described as the first truly Russian haute cuisine restaurant.
“In Moscow, people are beginning to understand the difference between the good products and the bad,” he says. “But it’s changing slowly. And so I push it.”
The exotic foods of Georgia are as beloved in Moscow as Indian curry is in London. The following springtime recipe for a simple grilled chicken tabaka comes from the Tatler Club, a Moscow hotspot notable for its highflying clientele.
Chicken Tabaka Ingredients:
1 Cornish hen, deboned (Ask your butcher to do this.) 2 cloves garlic, minced 1 tsp. finely chopped fresh rosemary, plus 2 sprigs for pan 2 Tbsp. olive oil Lettuce leaves and homemade adjika sauce (recipe follows) for serving
Rub hen with garlic and rosemary and lightly salt. Heat olive oil over medium-high heat in a grill pan until it shimmers. Add rosemary sprigs. Fry hen under press until it is cooked through and develops a brown crust, 5-7 minutes per side. Serve atop lettuce leaves with adjika sauce spooned generously over hen.
Adjika sauce Ingredients: 3 tomatoes, blanched and peeled
1 bell pepper, chopped Pinch of finely chopped fresh horseradish, garlic and chili pepper
Chop peeled tomatoes and press with the back of a spoon, reserving juices. Add chopped bell pepper and spices, plus salt to taste. Mix well.