Wander at night through the center of Moscow, past the casinos with their grand prizes--a sports car, a small helicopter--hoisted up on platforms, past the young girl offering to rent out her horse for a late-evening ride, and you realize that the Russian capital is like nowhere else. It's a showplace for excess but also a village: many grim Stalin-era buildings encircle cozy courtyards where children play on swings and pensioners walk their dogs. One of the delights of today's Moscow is that its food spans the same wild spectrum: from world class to high kitsch to the products of its wonderful farmers' markets.
For many business travelers, the rich fragrances, hues and flavors on Moscow's tables come as a shock. But none of this is new; it is more a return to the Russia that disappeared with the 1917 Revolution. Food lovers here have always looked toward Western Europe as well as their own specialties. Assaying some of Russia's finest restaurants in 1914, the Baedeker guide noted disapprovingly that most were "in the hands of French or German proprietors" and pricey. Such restaurants are still pricey: about $200 a head without wine for excellent Japanese cuisine, only slightly less for French or Italian.
One of the finest dining rooms in Moscow is at Kumir, where the decor is Manila Hyatt 1984 but the traditional French fare is superb. A meal for two--succulent pigeon de Sologne, excellent fish and a youngish Chateauneuf-du-Pape--costs north of $300. East-West fusion is represented by the fashionable Uley, which serves rack of lamb and Chilean sea bass, but a mere pot of green tea there will set you back $20. Another chic place is Syr (Russian for cheese), whose decor suggests the inside of a Swiss cheese and which in spite of that has very good Italian food.
The main restaurant at the National Hotel is traditionally Russian, with suckling pig, sturgeon, and pike perch in cream on the menu. The bonus: a lovely Kremlin view. (The diner with the shaved head and the well-cut suit, attended by aides and decorative young women, is a prominent figure in an ultranationalist political party.)
Georgian restaurants abound. Try Tiflis, just off Ostozhenka Street. Hors d'oeuvres, including eggplant stuffed with walnut, are excellent, though the main courses are variable (try the chicken Tabaka). Very good wine from the owner's vineyard costs just a little more than tea at Uley.
If you like blood sports with supper, Beloye Solntse Pustyni (White Sun of the Desert, also the name of a Soviet cult film) has cockfights on Monday along with good traditional Central Asian dishes such as plov, a rice pilaf with chicken and seasonings.
Much of Moscow's street food--the dumplings known as piroshki, pies stuffed with meat or vegetables, potatoes filled with herring and onion--is delicious. But hepatitis is a risk. A far better bet is to visit a market such as Dorogomilovo, near the Kiev railroad station. Buy fruit--including succulent, almost purple tomatoes from Central Asia--fresh herbs and soft cheese from the Moscow region, fresh chanterelles and cepes. Take everything to a colleague's apartment or your hotel room, along with a bottle of wine from the city's best shop, L'Intendant, and you will have a sense of what well-heeled Russians really enjoy these days. And always have.