From St. Petersburg in the west to Vladivostok in the east, the Russian Federation is one very, very large country. Stretching 20,000+km (12,000+ mi), it shares its borders with no less than 16 other sovereign states, and has a maritime boundary with the United States. Remember Sarah Palin? She boasted she could see Mother Russia clear across the Bering Strait from her front porch in Alaska.
With more than one-eighth of the earth’s inhabitable land area, there’s plenty of room to accommodate a population of 144m from 160 different ethnic groups. Diverse and multi-cultural, you’d think this variety would translate well in the kitchen, right? Well, it certainly does.
Enjoying a break in the official itinerary after today’s walk around Red Square and a glimpse inside the Kremlin, I — a guest photojournalist invited by Insight Vacations to experience its Easy Pace Russia journey — am looking for a restaurant recommendation, on my own ruble, and I don’t have to look very far. Gennady, our GQ-worthy tour director-concierge-storyteller, tells me straight away, “Go to Odessa-Mama, it’s one of my favorite Ukrainian kitchens here in Moscow and it’s where Muscovites dine. You’ll love it.” Well, I’m out the door quicker than you can say, “Doctor Zhivago.”
Just a ten-minute stroll through a park from my hotel — the Radisson Royal, one of Stalin’s “Seven Sisters” skyscrapers that’s been converted into a five-star luxury hotel overlooking the Moscow River — I arrive at no. 7 Ukrainskiy Blvd., home to the 37th ranked out of 11,000+ Moscow restaurants by Trip Advisor.
“Forget about diets, calories and revolutionary gastronomical breakthroughs,” comments Egor Osipov, the founder of the restaurant. “Just sit down and relax as if you were back at your family home and indulge in the tasty, elegant and hospitable food straight from the heart of Odessa.”
It’s pretty lively tonight as the restaurant is packed, but the hostess says she can clear a table in about ten minutes. So I stay out of the way of the busy wait staff, enjoy a glass of the house white — a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc — and listen to a young musician playing traditional tunes on his squeeze box over in the bar.
Like Mother Russia, Odessa-Mama is as diverse as it is tempting, with ethnic dishes reflective of the multi-cultural city overlooking the Black Sea for which it is named: Russian, Ukrainian, Jewish, Armenian, Greek and Romanian. I scan the special menu selected from recipes created by celebrated Chef Oksana Perkina, a true Odessian who really knows her way around the kitchen, and decide on a starter and a main.
The Jewish salad leads off. It’s a healthy (read, large) portion of fresh baby spinach, roasted eggplant and slices of crunchy cucumber drizzled with a tahini sauce and topped with crushed hazelnuts. Delightful.
And, I savor one of Chef Perkina’s favorites, an oven-roasted poussin chicken. This young farmyard bird, stuffed with dried apricots in a honey-cream-rosemary-melted butter sauce and surrounded by cubed red beets and a knot of fresh scallions, is, to say the very least, TO DIE FOR.
If it weren’t for the fact that I only have one more day in Moscow, I’d be back in a heartbeat to savor more Odessian ethnic fare at Odessa-Mama. You were right, Gennady. I absolutely loved it!
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There’s no sleeping in tomorrow as the normal “relaxed start” is thrown out the window so we can board the motor coach early to cruise about 70km (42 mi) outside Moscow to OD. Say what? OverDOME, not overdose, at Saint Sergius Lavra, the spiritual center of the Russian Orthodox Church.