Dec 14, 2014

Я СВОБОДЕН (On dining out in Moscow, pt. 1)

I have a confession to make - I've been eating Russian food again.  I've already blogged on this topic ad nauseam (get it?), but I have yet to take a trip to Russia so brief that I can fast through it.  And besides, as I've said, Moscow isn't exactly Russia - eating here is a world apart from the pigs' heads and forced potato-labor of this blog's past lives.  Flush with Western imports and with its finger to the pulse of global trends, Moscow is the undisputed culinary capital of Moscow Oblast.  Of course, Western imports were banned weeks before my arrival, and when it's this cold, a pulse can be hard to find, but the city does its best - whatever your palate desires, Moscow can produce a workmanlike equivalent.  

To this end, Moscow serves not only Russian food and "Soviet ethnic" food (the topic for my next post), but what I'll call "trendy" food, a whole world of essentially identical eateries, varying only in the gender and ethnic makeup of the waitstaff.  For instance, a Russo-Mexican restaurant might be staffed by poncho-clad Armenian men, but Russo-Japanese is best served by Uzbek girls with chopsticks in their hair.  This post will describe one such Japanese restaurant, but please do not interpret the story as idiosyncratic or isolated - like everything else on this blog, it is true, representative, presented without bias or insight, and a metaphor for all of Russia.  


I never intended to eat trendy food - here's how it happened.  On break from work one day, I went to my usual lunch-place Cafe Prime, which I like because the pre-packaged sandwiches seem fresh, or at least very cold.  Unfortunately, my card was rejected there, so I left in search of a place that would serve me food before swiping the card.  That's how I ended up at Wabi-Sabi, one of the three balancing powers in Moscow's faux-competitive sushi tri-opoly.  Like all trendy restaurants in Moscow, the inside was dark and incoherently decorated, lined with TVs showing silent videos of Moto-cross, and booming with Christmas-themed, feel-good hip-hop too loud for you to hear your waitress.  Before I continue, I want to stress that I've never written a piece of fiction in my life.

When you sit down, you are issued a portfolio of colorful laminated paperwork.  It would take 15,000 words to describe the maddeningly complex ordering procedures at Wabi-Sabi, but fortunately, I have 15 pictures.  I'll begin with the main menu, photographed from the side. It has 26 pages, each with 8-10 options on it, beginning with neon-colored cocktails and I think ending with more neon-colored cocktails.  A conservative estimate would be 250 staple menu items.

Because I was there between 11:00 and 5:00, I also got a lunch menu, in fact the "new" lunch menu, with the mocking title "I AM FREE."  At the top, it promises "even more dishes," from 180 rubles. 

The inside is a grid of even more dishes, organized along two axes - the X-axis is in ascending order of price, and the Y-axis is the usual sequence of courses in a meal.  On the right page, underneath another reminder that I AM FREE, are seven different permutations of the five categories along the Y-axis, for instance, salad + soup + roll + main course, or salad + soup + roll OR main course, with corresponding prices for each complex.  This is in addition to individual prices for each item, and the red table of "special lunch prices" for a seemingly random assortment of drinks.  

Inside the new lunch menu was this small piece of paper, which actually challenged my Russian - all that was clear to me was that, for whatever reason, I could write my phone number on this piece of paper and expect to hear from Wabi-Sabi.  Then it told me I AM FREE, and that Wabi-Sabi has a new lunch.

That was the full extent of my food options, but only because my party was not big enough for the 'special banquet menu',

and it was not late enough for the half-priced after 11:00 p.m. menu:

If you're not sure you chose the right adventure, the whole Wabi-Sabi experience can be replicated in 20 locations across Moscow, some of which have even more menus.  Just grab a map, a magnifying glass and an abacus, and use this handy guide to find a Wabi-Sabi with a children's menu, or a breakfast menu, or both, or neither, or a "game menu," or a "hookah menu" without a game menu, or a live DJ or live music but not both.  Also, remind your waitress that something is 10% off, and another thing is 99 rubles, 120 rubles and 130 rubles.  She certainly doesn't remember.

The staple menu and the lunch menu actually overlap significantly, and with each item I ordered, the waitress asked me to specify from which menu I wanted it - that is, if I would like it for 20 rubles more or 20 rubles less.  One golden rule of eating in Russia is that cheaper food is worse, but more expensive food is not better.  Keeping this rule in mind, I deliberated a long time, but ultimately chose to pay 20 rubles more.  In the process of ordering, the waitress proposed two different sides, including french rolls that "were not on the menu," but I declined.  Soon I would eat, and as per my plan, then I would pay.  Having successfully ordered, I finally had time to browse the secondary literature, not directly related to the menus.

Aside from the varying price schemes for lunch vs. dinner, Wabi-Sabi offers no fewer than five discrete discount deals and programs, unrelated to the time of day or the size of your party. These were advertised on the plastic table-placard, and on two extensions that stuck out the sides of it. First, there is some sort of club-card, provided in partnership with Sviaznoi, one of the two balancing powers in Moscow's faux-competitive wireless duopoly:

Second, some 10% off something, but also, a free drink on any order over 600 rubles,

Third, 10% off if you take it to go,

Fourth, a third champagne glass free after my first two:

And fifth, discounts on select large sushi combos:

Food hasn't arrived yet?  Browse the Wabi-Sabi internal magazine they leave under the menu-portfolio.  As you'll notice on the cover, it offers 250 of something, +10%, multiplied by 2.  

The inside offered another 30% of something, or off something, or in addition to something...  

...with 30 of something else in 7 ways, which can be elaborated on in person, online, or by phone, including through smart phone apps available at the App Store or through Google Play.  

Game theory suggests that there are more possible meals at Wabi-Sabi than there are atoms in the known universe, and YOU ARE FREE to choose any one.  I chose a bowl of miso soup and a salmon roll, which was a little warmer than the sandwiches at Cafe Prime, and then I waited twenty minutes for my debit card to work its way through the sushi-bureaucratic apparatus.  The card swiped fine.

A lot of "trendy" food follows the Wabi-Sabi model, but for whatever reason, "Soviet ethnic" seems to have developed along healthier capitalist lines since the 1990s.  Why these places in particular have thrived is unclear - Russian food is a riddle wrapped in a horse intestine, inside phony packaging from Belarus.  You'll see what I mean in my next post - Georgian food.  I know you think you're full now, but believe me - it never lasts.