Moscow Goes Kosher
The Russian capital’s recent boom in kosher restaurants shows that kashrut isn’t just for Jews anymore
“A kosher restaurant in Moscow is like a Russian bear,” Talmud scholar Daniel Boyarin told me recently over dinner. “It doesn’t matter how well the bear dances as long as the bear does its dance.”
Boyarin, a professor at the University of California Berkeley who recently acquired something of a pop-culture status when mentioned in the Oscar-nominated Israeli film Footnote, was in Moscow to give a series of lectures about Jesus and kashrut for Eshkolot, an organization presenting classes and “edutainment” on Jewish culture. After his first event, we were part of a group that met for dinner at Noodles, a new “Brooklyn-style” kosher restaurant a stone’s throw from the Kremlin. Giant candlesticks on our polished wooden table—which was surrounded by heavy velvet chairs, all empty, as we were the only guests—created the effect of tasteless baroque splendor. The burgers were overcooked and too salty, but as Boyarin had implied, the décor and the food didn’t necessarily matter; the important part was that Noodles simply existed, and on that front, the bear—no matter how clumsy or talentless—was definitely doing its dance.
Noodles is among more than a half-dozen kosher restaurants that have proliferated in Moscow at breakneck speed since last autumn. One of the reasons for this uptick seems obvious: Though most of Moscow’s Jews remain as unobservant as they were throughout the Soviet period, a significant minority of them has become religious; they’ve also been joined by traditionally observant Jews from the Caucasus who have relocated to Moscow. Most of these Muscovites’ needs are served by stores and restaurants connected to Jewish communal organizations, but they still want a larger range of dining and food-shopping options.
The bulk of these new restaurants’ actual and targeted customers, however, are not observant Jews. Non-Jews are purportedly drawn to kosher eateries for a variety of reasons; some think kosher food is safer or higher quality, while others think it will help them lose weight or be otherwise beneficial to their health. And even more so, it seems, the proliferation of kosher restaurants reflects the expansion of the Russian capital’s middle class, people with money to spend who are looking for a novel culinary adventure. They want something new—now that the thrill of sushi and pizza has worn off—and they are drawn by kosher offerings not so much because it is “Jewish,” but because kashrut is being explained to them as part of a system of eating that is thousands of years old. The very old, in this case, is the new new.
Dan Shnaiderman, manager of the kosher section of the Farmers Bazaar, a high-end farmer’s market, recounted the words mumbled by one non-Jewish client filling up his cart with kosher products: “If Jews thought all of this up, it must be good,” the customer said. “Jews would never come up with something that would be bad for themselves.” This customer is, apparently, not alone: With a range of new restaurants that have opened since last fall, serving a variety of tastes, kosher food is among Moscow’s newly emergent culinary trends.
Besides dirt-cheap places where a self-respecting person would never eat, there are two main categories of restaurants in Russia today. One, referred to as pafosnye—literally, “pathetic” (as in: “full of pathos” or even pompous)—includes establishments overpriced in a way that makes people who eat there aware, in a self-satisfied sort of way, that they are paying a lot of money for their food distinguished more by a similar kind of self-importance than by superior taste. The other category includes restaurants referred to as demokratichnye, “democratic.” The word in Russian is formed with a different suffix from the word referring to “democratic” as a political system. (One may say that its frequent use displaces the concept that Russia’s contemporary political system lacks.) The meaning here is “available to broad masses of people,” and the reference is to those establishments that have good yet moderately priced food on the menu and are attractive to an educated clientele. When considering going out to eat in Moscow, one hears the two terms constantly. The chandeliers and the velvet chairs placed Noodles, which opened last fall, squarely in the category of pompously pathetic establishments. Its name comes from the nickname of Robert De Niro’s wily character in Once Upon a Time in America, a film about the Jewish underworld of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, even though the restaurant’s owner, Shota Boterashvili, has shifted the association to Brooklyn—a place he has never visited.
I ended up following Boyarin to Noodles during my very first week in Moscow on this visit. Like any Russian whose dietary preferences and expectations have changed since leaving the motherland (I moved to the United States 16 years ago), I was craving a protein that wasn’t meat and a vegetable that, in its cooked form, bore some trace of similarity to the original (and wasn’t, say, a shredded beet doused in mayonnaise). I ordered a filet of dorado with a side of tempura vegetables. When the food arrived, beautifully arranged on a plate, costing upwards of $25 and quite tasteless, Boyarin, who had ordered lamb stew and a rack of lamb, dispensed the following advice: The kitchen staff at Noodles was probably from Central Asia, and the cooks don’t know as much from fish as they know from lamb.
Boyarin, who unlike me keeps kosher, found that the recent proliferation of kosher restaurants made his weeklong stay much easier to manage than such visits used to be for observant visitors in the past. He was right about the lamb, too. A large proportion of kitchen staff in Moscow restaurants does, indeed, come from Central Asian states that were once Soviet republics, particularly Uzbekistan. Their presence in Moscow speaks to the larger fact that Moscow these days attracts low-wage laborers from the former Soviet colonies; in this respect, Moscow, as an immense postcolonial metropole, is comparable to London. I got to try the lamb on a repeat visit to Noodles several days later, too. It did taste decent, as did Boterashvili’s favorite dish, steak entrecote, though it proved somewhat hard to convince him to let me order it medium-rare. Russians like their meat cooked all the way through.
Boterashvili comes from the small Georgian town of Kulashi, which had a closely knit Jewish community whose members, he told me, have always been observant. When he, along with other Georgian Jews, relocated to Moscow around 1990, fleeing the instability produced by the gradual collapse of the Soviet Union and chasing after economic opportunity (it’s rumored that a number of Jews from Kulashi control major business interests in Moscow today), the situation was hard for observant Jews. Boterashvili, who spent most of our lunchtime interview attending to more pressing matters by phone (“the restaurant is hardly the only business I have,” he said), recalls immense difficulties finding kosher food.
David Rozenson, who left Russia as a child in the 1970s, recalls similar difficulties when he visited Moscow around 1990. Trying to organize a Passover Seder for the local community at the height of Perestroika-era food shortages, he had to appeal to the Jewish sensibility of the owner of Moscow’s very first McDonald’s, which had just opened, to allow the community to purchase an entire cow from the farm that supplied the franchise, so that the animal could be properly slaughtered by a shoykhet in accordance with Jewish dietary laws.
Finding kosher food isn’t so difficult anymore. Rozenson, who moved back to Moscow 11 years ago to run the local branch of the Avi Chai Foundation (Avi Chai is affiliated with the Keren Keshet Foundation, which created Nextbook Inc., Tablet’s publisher), took me on a tour of the city’s Chabad-run Jewish Community Center. It opened in 2000 and operates stores that stock kosher food as well as a kosher restaurant that, in addition to its regular menu and event catering, offers an affordable business-lunch option that attracts many non-Jewish clients from office buildings in the neighborhood. To enter the restaurant inside Moscow’s JCC, however, one has to go through a metal detector. By contrast, the newly minted kosher restaurateurs hoped for spaces that would exist outside Jewish communal structures and that would seem more open and welcoming to everyone, including non-Jews.
At the Farmers Bazaar, which opened this spring, kosher products from hummus to meat to salsas to many kinds of wine are spread throughout the organic market. The space is bright and airy, and Shnaiderman’s enthusiasm is infectious. Having grown up in Ukraine, where he gradually became religious, Shnaiderman, following a brief stint as a new immigrant in Israel, moved to Moscow, where he is on a kind of self-imposed mission to educate others about kashrut.
The site of the new shopping mall and farmers market next to Moscow’s famed circus on Tsvetnoy (Flower) Boulevard was the location of a flower market in the 19th century and an open-air food market during the Soviet period, so the owners of the mall had a contemporary spin-off in mind, Shnaiderman told me over a pot of ginger tea in a café overlooking the market. The concept of a high-end farmers market isn’t new in the United States (think a kind of a cross-breed between San Francisco’s Ferry Building and the Farmers Market at the Grove in L.A.), but in Moscow, such a place still does more to cultivate the tastes of the middle class rather than to respond to them.
In many ways, it is the very expansion of the middle class that is itself part of the story of culinary adventurousness in contemporary Moscow. Russia’s capital city could be more appropriately described as a city-state—a magnet for money and talent from across Russia, a city well-oiled by petroleum and media rubles whose accumulation of wealth has little to do with the dire financial conditions in the country as a whole. As is common with the newly moneyed the world over, there is an ever-growing need for new commodities and experiences. Sushi, for example, which on average costs twice as much in Moscow as it does in the United States (and isn’t any better for it), has become somewhat ubiquitous. However, now that sushi no longer surprises anybody, there is a niche for something new. And for non-Jewish Russians, kosher food is one such new interest.
There was a phrase that I kept hearing from different purveyors of kosher food in Moscow: “You are what you eat.” I first heard this phrase from Ilya Kiselev, who runs a restaurant and bar called Tel Aviv across the street from the Farmers Bazaar, to describe his rationale for promoting kashrut as a system of eating that feeds the soul in addition to the body. Kiselev, who is not observant, is a designer by training—training that’s readily on display at Tel Aviv, where many black-and-white photos of towns in Israel cover the walls, in addition to political posters and reproductions of Israeli advertisement. Tel Aviv was created as a restaurant oriented around hosting events. It doubles as a concept bar by night. One night, I had met a friend there during a klezmer concert; this was among Tel Aviv’s tamer evenings, paling in comparison with their vaccination-theme party, during which barmen dressed in white lab coats served cocktails out of syringes. More straightforward events take place there, too: Kiselev told me of hosting Israeli film nights and lectures about Bauhaus buildings in Tel Aviv, the city.
Not all potential clients of kosher restaurants, however, are convinced that kosher food can be eaten by non-Jews. Over a tasty lunch at Tel Aviv that included hummus with mushrooms, borekas, and a bowl of Yemeni soup, Kiselev told me of a non-Jewish friend of his who, after being invited to Kiselev’s birthday party at Tel Aviv, called to double-check whether her very presence would somehow profane the establishment.
Anna Adanina, who manages the only kosher branch of the Shokoladnitsa (“Chocolate seller”) chain of coffee shops, recounts similar troubles in explaining kashrut to non-Jewish clients. Unlike Tel Aviv and other establishments, which advertise themselves as kosher, the kosher branch of Shokoladnitsa, which opened last fall a short walk from one of Moscow’s synagogues, doesn’t make this obvious. So, on a busy morning when I visited, there were several men in kippot there eating breakfast (I had potato pancakes with an egg and smoked salmon on the side) along with customers who weren’t there specifically because of kosher food. For the former, the existence of the kosher Shokoladnitsa is a huge relief: Two young men eating there that morning told me that they could now take their non-Jewish clients and business partners out to a place where they were free to order off the menu themselves. For the latter customers, it’s often a surprise that the menu, unlike throughout the ubiquitous Shokoladnitsa chain, does not include meat items. These customers get an impromptu lecture on the laws of kashrut, with its separation of dairy and meat products, and while some occasionally decide to leave, most are intrigued enough to stay. One such new customer at Shokoladnitsa I spoke with told me that even though she had been trying many new things since she started eating at the kosher branch, she hasn’t even gained any weight.
The odd-sounding equation of kashrut with weight loss, though the two things do not have any direct correspondence, isn’t that farfetched a conclusion for some. Arye Fein, a whimsically funny mashgiach (kashrut supervisor) at Tel Aviv—all kosher restaurants employ the same half-dozen mashgiachim sent by the kashrut department of the rabbinate; they rotate between restaurants in shifts—took me into the kitchen to show how difficult it is to wash mint and other herbs to ensure that there are no small bugs left in them. While doing so, he gave me his rationale for why the idea of kashrut may be appealing to Moscow’s non-Jewish clients: Kosher food is checked many times over, the kind of food that a discerning customer concerned about food safety can trust.
Some of this marketing clearly works: At a regular supermarket, I came across a line of dairy products under the brand name “Tevye-molochnik” (“Tevye the Dairyman,” named after Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem’s most famous protagonist). The milk and kefir cartons have a faint image of the violin—either hinting at the sort of cultural refinement that comes with a cultural stereotype that all Jews in Russia are violinists, or going by way of Tevye’s Americanized image as a character in Fiddler on the Roof. The word “luxury” (in English) is printed above the Russian word identifying the product (milk, kefir, or cream), appealing, together with the above-average price and the kashrut stamp, to some kind of middle-class shopper looking for some kind of certified refinement.
In addition to different attempts at branding kosher food as healthy, there is also a demand to show some of this food as specifically Jewish. Though a place like Tel Aviv tries to be a hip concept restaurant serving mainly Middle Eastern fare—and though a restaurant called Zucker (“sugar” in Yiddish) tries to serve mainly Italian food (it offers, among other dishes, inedible risottos that have to be cooked without key dairy ingredients)—even they cannot function without some Eastern European Jewish foods, such as forshmak, a traditional herring appetizer.
It’s no surprise, then, that of all the new options in Moscow, a kosher restaurant that understands itself as a Jewish restaurant offers the best culinary experience. This place is Misada (“restaurant” in Hebrew). The décor feels a bit like a recreation of an Arab street in Jaffa or East Jerusalem, its kitschiness exacerbated by the fact that the restaurant is located inside a glitzy shopping mall in Moscow-City, a new commercial development with office and retail space that has dramatically altered the city’s skyline. But, aesthetics aside, the dining experience here is unquestionably satisfactory. Unlike Moscow’s other kosher restaurants that target business diners, seekers of healthy and “luxurious” foods, or theme partygoers, Misada thinks of itself as a family-style establishment. (It does, however, have an economical business-lunch option that has, among other things, a wonderful lentil dish that could be a godsend to kosher vegetarians who land in the famously meat-eating Russia.) As the owner of the restaurant, Misha Amayev, who grew up in the Caucasus, explains, the concept of the restaurant was to collect in one menu the highlights of different cuisines from across Jewish diasporas, in addition to some highlights of Middle Eastern-cum-Israeli cooking (such as very good hummus), as well as a few nostalgically Soviet dishes (such as chicken kiev prepared with a butter substitute). Dishes at Misada range from predictable Eastern European Ashkenazi specialties to chudu, a wonderfully tasty pie with greens that’s a favorite of Mountain Jews (“In Dagestan this would have been local greens that got picked high up on mountain slopes, above the point where dogs would go to pee,” said Amayev, “but in Moscow we have to make do mostly with spinach”); to plov—a rice pilaf—from the Bukharan Jewish cuisine; to barbecued meats, including lamb shanks, among the best I’ve ever had, prepared by the restaurant’s Azeri barbecue chef; to khinkali, Georgian dumplings.
My friend Mila Dubrovina, assigned to cover Moscow’s kosher restaurants in a series of articles for Booknik, a project of the Avi Chai Foundation, got even luckier than me on her visit to Misada: She got to see the restaurant’s main client among the diners. Lev Leviev, a Russian-Jewish billionaire who runs Africa-Israel, the company that owns the mall where Misada is located, is quite likely the only reason that Misada exists. Another friend, who knows the Moscow Jewish scene inside out, hinted to me that Leviev simply needed a place to eat when he is at work: “He wanted to eat at his own restaurant, that’s all there is to it!”
Toward the end of my week of reporting and restaurant-hopping, I got to see Boyarin one more time. We went to Jerusalem, a restaurant on the top floor of the synagogue on Malaya Bronnaya Street that was expropriated by the Soviet state, recently returned to the Jewish community, and expanded in 2004; Jerusalem opened in the building at that time. This was Boyarin’s third consecutive night at Jerusalem—after the mediocrity and the pathetic pompousness of Noodles, after the hipster coolness of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem for him was the place where one goes to eat well without all the frills present at the other kosher establishments that profess to cater to non-Jews. The restaurant’s gilded ceilings, tall candles gracing its tables, the metal detector one has to pass through upon entering the synagogue—all this puts Jerusalem on a different playing field in comparison with most of Moscow’s new kosher establishments. But the food, indeed, is excellent (as are views over old Moscow from the rooftop terrace that’s open in summertime). Jerusalem, because of its predominantly Georgian Jewish clientele, may very well be one of Moscow’s best restaurants specializing in Georgian cuisine. They know how to make kharcho, a spicy cherry-plum-paste-based meat-and-rice soup that is a staple of Georgian menus, and several kinds of grilled meats that are truly out of this world. There is little at Jerusalem that will feel trendy and plenty that may scare off the uninitiated (Ian, a non-Jewish friend of mine, told me that he didn’t feel entirely in his element there when his observant Jewish ex-girlfriend had brought him there once), but Jerusalem, unlike most of Moscow’s new kosher establishments, knows its clientele and doesn’t need to be trendy. After all, “this is a bear,” as Boyarin said at dinner, “that doesn’t have to dance at all.”
Farmers Bazaar (market)
Address: 15/1 Tsvetnoy Boulevard, Moscow
Subway station: Tsvetnoy Boulevard
Phone: +7 (495) 234-24-12
Jerusalem (fleishig restaurant)
Address: 6 Bolshaya Bronnaya Street, Moscow
Subway stations: Pushkinskaya, Chekhovskaya, Tverskaya
Phone: +7 (495) 690-62-66
Jewish Community Center (milchig and fleishig restaurants on premises)
Address: 2nd Vysheslavtsev pereulok, 5A, Moscow
Subway stations: Maryina roshcha, Novoslobodskaya, Mendeleevskaya
Phone: +7 (495) 645-50-00 (milkhig); +7 (495) 231-27-77 (fleishig)
Misada (fleishig restaurant)
Address: Presnenskaia naberezhnaia, 2 (inside “Afimoll” shopping center)
Subway stations: Vystovochnaya, Mezhdunarodnaya
Phone: +7 (499) 408-01-06
Noodles (fleishig restaurant)
Address: 15-17/1 Bolshoy Cherkasskiy pereulok, Moscow
Subway stations: Lubyanka, Okhotny Riad, Kitay-Gorod
Phone: +7 (495) 623-53-96
Shokoladnitsa (milchig, kosher branch of larger chain)
Address: 32/1 Sadovaya-Kudrinskaya Street, Moscow
Subway station: Mayakovskaya
Phone: +7 (495) 935-73-54
Tel Aviv (fleishig restaurant)
Address: 30/1 Tsvetnoy Boulevard, Moscow
Subway station: Tsvetnoy Boulevard
Phone: + 7 (495) 964-01-45
Zucker (fleishig restaurant)
Address: 12/2 Bolshoy Kozikhinskiy pereulok, Moscow
Subway stations: Pushkinskaya, Chekhovskaya, Tverskaya, Mayakovskaya
Phone: +7 (495) 695-73-55
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Exploring the Internet led me to knowledge, questions, and, ultimately, leaving the Hasidism I’d grown up with