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Ruminations on Russian Food, Drink and Rubles

by Staff Writer / Washington Capitals
MOSCOW…I mean, BETHESDA–Driving back home through Bethesda this morning, the smell of two “everything” bagels filling the car and the sun shining brightly, I was struck by how adaptable people can be. In a day or two, my DC routine will feel normal again. Yet sixteen hours ago I was flying over the Arctic Circle at 33,000 feet (outside temp -72ºF) on the way from Moscow to JFK.


There's old Russian proverb: “There is no shame in not knowing; the shame lies in not finding out.”  Within the confines of our trip's busy schedule we tried a variety of Russian food and drink, and in the process expanded our knowledge of Russia in a small but not insignificant way.

So before the details of this whirlwind trip begin to fade – and before the looming specter of my lost luggage ruins my mirthful morning mood – here are one traveler's impressions of Moscow's cuisine.

Sticker Shock
Let us open the ruminations with a brief discussion of Moscow prices to put things in the appropriate context. Everything is a lot more expensive than you'd think in Moscow. As the City Mayors site notes, “Outside the European Union (EU) Moscow is the costliest destination, and is now more expensive than New York.”

Our first taste of bottled water simultaneously provided a taste of Moscow prices. The day we arrived, we reached in our hotel at 2 P.M.; our rooms wouldn't be ready for another hour. So as we sat in the lobby with thousand-mile stares, exhausted and dehydrated from the long flight, Keeley ordered a bottle of water for us to share from the hotel's restaurant. A server delivered the water to the tired travelers, and at that point I would have paid any price to rehydrate. Still, we all gasped when the bill arrived: $13 for one liter of Evian, plus tip. Zoinks, Scooby.

With rare exceptions, such as the coffee vending machines we found in the hockey arena, the prices were consistently much higher than we expected. And by no means were we living high on the hog; I'd wager we were the only accredited journalists covering the tournament who, rather than hiring a car every day, instead walked a mile from the hotel to the metro, then a mile from the metro to the arena, in the rain. Uh oh, I sound like a bit of an old curmudgeon… “In my day, we walked to school, uphill, both ways, in the snow… without shoes!”

Regardless, the point is that it's nearly impossible to travel cheaply in Moscow, particularly when much of the food and drink was crammed down our throats as we rushed from event to event. Still, despite the hectic rush we did find a few stand-out beverages and meals.

For Love of Coffee
As I now sit at home, pouring myself a cup of Alonzo's Double Dark coffee from a french press, I realize the coffee on our trip deserves its own little sub-heading. After all, we drank a lot more coffee each and every day than we did alcohol on all the days combined.

Coffee Mania on Nikitskaya Blvd., one of eight locations owned by a friend of Igor Larionov's, prepares the best coffee the four of us had on the this trip and, perhaps, the best on any trip. You may have already seen the photo of wondrous cappuccino in the Worlds photo gallery, but here's another photo of their award-winning Cappuccino with a delicious Kiwirinha (kiwi-ginger concoction) and a Carambol (a “creme-brulée mousse pastry”) that knocked our socks off. Finding Coffee Mania made our last three nights of late-night laptopping much more enjoyable.

We generally enjoyed the coffees in Moscow, though the quality and prices varied dramatically. For example, due to frantic schedules, we purchased many of our coffees in the Flat Iron Bar in the hotel. They serve an excellent double-espresso and, until our discovery of Coffee Mania, we happily kick-started our days with several foam-topped cups.

Such convenient caffeine came at a price though: a double-espresso in the hotel cost 300 Rubles, or about $12, plus tax and tip, each. So we were thrilled to find Coffee Mania, albeit late in the trip, where superb coffee cost a more reasonable $9.00 – still expensive, but better and cheaper than the hotel.

At the other end of the price and quality scale was the coffee provided in the arenas' coffee vending machines. For a little less than a dollar, the machine brews a strong cuppa joe with a variety of powdered additives (creamer, hazelnut, etc.) in under a minute. This steaming beverage rises out of the machine in a little plastic cup (click here for YouTube video of the cup rising out of the machine). We made many visits to this machine during our long days at the arenas; the bitter but sweet caffeine jolt the machine's brew provided was priceless.  

Feedin' Time
The easiest way to summarize the hockey arena food is: different isn't necessarily better. The choices were quite unlike those at the Verizon Center and other U.S. sporting venues, but the high prices for average-at-best food remain the same.

What stands out is that almost no overlap exists between Russian arena offerings and those in American arenas. Gone are the hot dogs, chicken fingers, and burgers of U.S. arenas; in their place are things like plastic-wrapped meat-on-a-bun which they microwave in the wrapper (so the roll gets warm and soggy but the meat stays cold and damp, yum), slices of salmon or salami on dry bread (not bad), and a wide variety candy bars.

Another difference worthy of note: the two arenas for this tournament did not serve alcohol to the public. That's right: beer-less and vodka-less Russian hockey fans! Apparently some combination of the arenas and organizers made the decision, and frankly it was a good one. With back-to-back games each day and nationalistic emotions running high among the fans, alcohol was only likely to fuel problems – particularly since it seemed clear to this reporter's nostrils that some fans liberally partook in pregame libations on the way to the arenas. While beer and drinks were available the in press lounge, we had little time to indulge – caffeine was usually the priority.

After many days of sub-par food at over-par prices, we decided to treat ourselves to a nice restaurant recommended by one of the friendly hotel staffers. At The Mill (?? ????????) serves delicious traditional Russian fare in a rustic setting, complete with mill wheel and fish pond. For an appetizer I had Siberian ravioli stuffed with lamb, sprinkled with herbs and butter. My main course was a hearty Russian veal stew with mushrooms and potatoes, served on a sizzling platter. The others' meals looked just as tasty, ranging from colorful salads to rack of lamb.

Of Russian beer, little need be said. Almost all of it is Pils style: light and crisp on the palate but with little to distinguish itself from, say, a Pilsner Urquell or a Kirin. As Seinfeld might say, “Not that there's anything wrong with that,” but frankly it's not my cup of brew. The fact that many establishments serve beers cool-but-not-cold also detracted from our enjoyment; it's one thing to have room-temperature Guinness, and quite another to sip warm Budvar.

We all wish we'd had more time to explore Moscow's dining offerings, as the little samples we had outside the arenas were quite palatable. From the lovely outdoor Scandinavian cafe to Coffee Mania's impressively varied dinner and dessert menu, Moscow seems a place one could find many terrific meals…given a large wad of Rubles, of course.

Da Zvidanya to Friends and Luggage
Luggage update: one bag was just delivered to my home intact, the other is still missing – as of noon on Tuesday American Airlines has not yet located it. That is, to put it mildly, less than encouraging.

Like our Moscow food and beverage experiments, my luggage's journey is yielding mixed and (potentially) expensive results. But while I am loathe to repeat this luggage experience, exploring Moscow's cuisine is an adventure I'd happily embark upon again.

Thus our trip comes to a close. It's one I'll never forget, and will always be grateful to Ted Leonsis and the Capitals for making it all possible. The camaraderie the four of us developed on the trip was unplanned and organic, and it turned out to be crucial for the smooth execution of our close-quartered, fast-paced, sleep-deprived venture. It, too, is something for which I am extremely grateful.

John and I will post additional photos and thoughts to On Frozen Blog over the next week or so – consider them the “DVD extras” that spilled over from the official Capitals' Worlds coverage.

Da Zvidanya all!
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