Dining under Putin: How sanctions are fueling a Russian food revolution

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Sanctions have put the bite back into Moscow's food culture

The rediscovery of local ingredients is proving a hit with Russian foodies

CNN  — 

Russia has always had a great tradition of making tasty meals from very little.

Where else would you find fried eggs with jam, gelatinous aspic creations or almost microscopically chopped “okroshka” soups on the menu?

With Moscow in the grip of sanctions that have hit menus hard – President Vladimir Putin has restricted foreign food imports in retaliation over Western economic embargoes – a dramatic culinary revolution is underway as chefs return to Soviet-era inventiveness to get food on the table.

The results are both surprising and delicious.

One of the chefs at the forefront of the country’s new-found locavore movement, championing local produce, is Vladimir Mukhin, a bearded 33-year-old who grew up cooking with his grandmother in southern Russia.

At his flagship restaurant, the White Rabbit (Smolensky Palace, Smolenskaya Square, Moscow; +7 495 663 39 99), he composes innovative riffs on Russian dishes.

Mukhin’s version of sour shchi, a classic cabbage soup, is a cold extraction of fermented cabbage juice poured over smoked herring and cucumbers, presented alongside a spoonful of king crab lightly dressed in mayonnaise.

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Contraband food

White Rabbit's version of shchi, a traditional cabbage soup.

Bread is made from birch bark flour (a traditional ingredient along the Volga River, born of scarcity) and served with a smooth fish paste mixed with swan liver.

Until recently, fine dining in Moscow was synonymous with imported luxury ingredients.

The restrictions – coupled with record lows for the ruble that made contraband foodstuffs too expensive to procure – have had dire consequences for many upscale establishments.

For Mukhin – who regularly travels in search of far-flung treasures such as white truffles from the southern region of Kuban, onions from Yalta, and sea urchin fished off the coast of Vladivostok – the ban has been a boon.

“Before the embargo, Russian people thought that food from overseas was superior,” he explains. “Now, we feel proud of what we have.”

The White Rabbit currently ranks 18th on the list of World’s 50 Best Restaurants and is fully booked almost every night.

“In Moscow, everybody used to go to restaurants to be seen, but now they come to eat,” Mukhin says.

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Lab cooks up new recipes

Vladimir Mukhin: "We feel proud of what we have."

Last year, he opened the Lab, a space the size of a dorm room equipped with a sleek kitchen, a rotary evaporator, and a sous-vide machine for low-temperature cooking.

Maps of Russia and photos from Mukhin’s recent excursion to Vladivostok adorn the walls, while shelves stocked with cookbooks from around the world form a miniature library.

In one corner are drawers of sprouted spelt grains from different regions; in another sits a vat of vinegar made from the evocatively named paradise apple, a local fruit that tastes like a plum-apple hybrid.

“We do our research and development here, but we open the lab to other chefs who want to study and experiment,” he says.

The farm-to-table philosophy is not limited to Moscow’s high-end restaurants.

LavkaLavka (Petrovka St., 21/2, Moscow; +7 495 621 20 36), a farmers’ cooperative founded by chef Boris Akimov, sources organic products from small Russian farms.

The group operates a chain of food stores and a restaurant that serves gourmet treats such as bottarga from Crimea with onion chips and goose liver profiteroles with homemade apple jam – as well as a range of Russian craft beers.

Meat specialist Chaban House (Novy Arbat 21, Moscow; +7 495 967 47 52) offers free-range beef and lamb from the Kalmykia region of the North Caucus. At this combination of butcher’s shop and bistro, diners select their cuts of choice and the cooks grill them to order.

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The hipster touch

Ugolëk's slogan is "rough food for gentle people."

The past few years have seen the rise of funky eateries with hipster aesthetics and an artisanal approach to food, executed with a dash of international flair.

Ugolëk (Bolshaya Nikitskaya St., 12, Moscow; +7 495 629 02 11), on recently trendy Bolshaya Nikitskaya street, is a brick-and-metal expanse where Russo-Mediterranean mash-ups such as succulent braised lamb and spice-rubbed pork tenderloin emerge from the open charcoal grill in the open kitchen.

The bar and gastropub Delicatessen (Sadovaya-Karetnaya St., 20, Moscow; +7 495 699 39 52) – with its speakeasy vibe, mismatched chairs, and staff of tattooed servers – brings to mind Brooklyn’s Williamsburg or London’s Hackney.

Delicatessen’s strange and wonderful house infusions, such as sea-buckthorn-steeped vodka, attest to the inventiveness of the new generation of bartenders.

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Home-grown “Camembert”

Moscow's Severyane restaurant has sourced a local version of Camembert.

Faced with the possibility of a future without French Brie, Moscow chefs have even started making their own French- and Italian-style cheeses.

At Severyane (Bolshaya Nikitskaya St., 12, Moscow; +7 499 700 08 98), toasted brioche croutons come with young local “Camembert” rolled in ash.

The burrata at Selfie (Novinsky Blvd., 31, Moscow; +7 849 599 58 503), a sibling of Vladimir Mukhin’s White Rabbit, is a near-perfect replica of the Italian original: creamy, rich, and deliciously oozy.

Although the import bans are set to end by 2018, Mukhin believes the recent trends will continue.

In mid-December, the chef will unveil his latest venture, a new restaurant called White Rabbit Chef’s Table. In contrast to the flagship’s 140-seat dining space, Chef’s Table will be an intimate venue with around 25 seats.

The smaller scale will allow Mukhin to use a wider array of regional products, some of which are only available in small quantities. His eyes grow wide as he describes rare mushrooms from a village in northwestern Russia, in season for only a few days a year.

“This is just the beginning. We have so much potential in Russia,” he says.

Melinda Joe is a globetrotting food and wine journalist based in Tokyo