Sunday, 3 February 2008

Expat postcard: moody crustacea, bootboy rebels and guns

I am in a strop with Arkady Novikov: Moscow’s eponymous Restauranteur. Knowingly or not I kind of live in his elitny eateries, for both business and pleasure. Last night I was having a crab-fest at Nedal'nij Vostok – Kamchatka crab at its best – with a tiny splurge of Beluga which, if not ecologically-PC, was damned fine. Life in Moscow without Novikov restaurants would be much less onctueuse.

Nedal'nij Vostok is cuisine-butch. Go for one of the tables near the central, open-plan kitchen and watch the kitchen floor-show. Watching a live lobster being sashimied is a curious experience. The chef took one lobster after another, lovingly stroked each down the back of its shell with the blunt side of the knife, before dispatching it, Roman-style, tip of the knife’s blade quickly through the thorax. Then he sliced the still-moving lobster in half, from jaw to tip of the tail. After being bisected, the legs still move for quite a while. My fellow diners were horrified, but I was fascinated, and vaguely recall its movements are more reflexive than brain-driven. Aesthetically this is gunk-free slaughter.

So why the strop with Novikov? My favourite deli in town, Globus Gourmet, has stopped accepting Novikov discount cards. Added to the fact that neo-Novikov joints, Vanil and Indus, have also stopped taking the cards, frankly I have to question why I shell out RUR 10,000 for it (10% off restaurant bills, 5% off shops, caterers and …er…a luxury florist). My card expires in April and I am not sure I shall bother to renew it.

The other day, after a breakfast meeting in (Novikov's) Vogue Café, I decided to drop into the Marriott Aurora Hotel to have my shoes cleaned by the boot-black there. Every two weeks or so I send my housekeeper to the Aurora’s boot-black, with all my boots and shoes (other than the ones I am wearing) to be cleaned. It is an indulgence of the essential, ordinary kind. Especially in a city whose streets are as filthy as Moscow’s in winter.

Incidentally I am nervous about the phrase boot-black: I hope it means ‘one who blackens boots’, rather than ‘the black person who cleans your boots’. The phrase being originally American, I am uncertain as to its proper etymology. But, anyway, bootblack is the phrase I use: shoe-shine boy sounds ridiculous after-all.

My capitalist-but-liberal sensitivity is enhanced by the fact that, in Kyiv, the rather ancient bootblack I prefer is, actually, black (remember seeing a non-white face in Kyiv is rare indeed). And fascinating.

Originally he was a Moscow-backed rebel leader fighting for the MPLA in Angola in the 1980s, but then he found himself in exile in the Moscow of the USSR. Somehow he ended up in Kyiv, with wife and child, just as the USSR collapsed and his Moscow-pension disappeared with the Great Struggle. So there he is today – half a planet a way from the home from which he is exiled and can never go back, his patron-state having disappeared – seemingly utterly forgotten. And now he cleans shoes at the Dnipro Hotel in Kyiv. He does an excellent job, BTW. Tip generously. His life story is well worth hearing.

PS: go the Dnipro hotel only for your shoes to be cleaned. It is an awful dive: more whorehouse than hotel; although very popular with regional government officials; Scandinavian engineers and – oddly – Italian importers. The restaurant is Soviet-era ghastly.

This week has proven very long, but somewhat typical of Moscow-business-season. I particularly enjoyed the 20.30 meeting (which went on until 23.45) close by the airport; at the office of a mini-oligarch. I counted 7 armed guards from entrance to boardroom: you don’t see as many armed guards as you used to in Moscow offices. The city is getting soft. Or more subtle.

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