If it’s your first time in Russia, chances are you’ll be thrown by the Cyrillic, even if you’ve diligently studied the alphabet charts in your guidebook beforehand. The mix of recognizable Roman and Greek characters and the Russian ones with no English equivalents will be charmingly baffling and somewhat disorienting for about four hours, or until you get seriously hungry. Even simple staples like kulibeka, a bread with white mushrooms or cabbage baked inside, or moiva, a small dried fish served whole as an appetizer, or the traditional fermented wheat beverage krace, a sort of peasant’s pop like a dark near beer, are hard to translate, let alone order. Never mind delicacies such as pickled garlic or pike-and-perch soup. I Had Borscht because I could say it, though I hadn’t touched beets since some unpleasantness at age five.
The restaurants advertised in your hotel might be the best way to find places with menus in English. I found that Georgian and Armenian establishments tend to have English underneath the Russian describing each dish, much like in nouvelle cuisines back home.. Also, you’ll probably hear about or stumble across charming neo-tsarist places like Zoom, a St. Petersburg café where the check arrives in a novel or volume of poetry – in Cyrillic, a necessary reminder that you’re not in Soho, Monterry, or some upscale mall in Des Plaines.
But what you really wanted was to pass your GREs (Genuine Russian Experiences).Once you’ve been up and down Nevsky Prospect or the Old Arbat for a few hours; you’ll want something solid in your stomach. I’ll warn you that a meal at some of these places (or just getting the check for one) can seem to take several hours, given intercultural variations on the concept of time and the visitor’s limited amount of it. So, carefully construct your schedule and routes in order to plan lunch and dinner at restaurants your guidebook lists that are close to the monuments and museums you want to visit throughout the day. Remember, though, the rewards of travel are often found in the surprises when you get lost. And whether you know where you are or not, when hunger hits, your stomach can’t be ignored. What’s surprising is that the ordinary quest of trying to fill it can lead to nourishment of a longer-lasting sort.
One of the best plain meals I found in Russia was at a chain called Kroshka Kartoshka, which looks something like KPOWKA KAPTOWKA in Cyrillic. On the logo, those letters appear in a circle around a cartoon chef hoisting a giant potato, which is what’s served, baked, with your choice of sauces in stainless-steel bowls you can point at through Plexiglas: mushrooms, greens, fish, and meat. I pointed to green-and-brown, pink-and-yellow, and another I forget, all flavorful beyond the chili and broccoli-and-Kraft I’ve had at similar establishments here (though it’s a great idea anywhere, isn’t it?). Maybe the scenery helped the flavor: in the lively Sennaya Plochad (Haymarket Square) location where I first noticed these in St. Petersburg, I took my dressed potato outside on a tray with a draft Boshkarov beer to eat at pine-green plastic furniture (pine green is the color of Kroshka Kartoshka) set out under umbrellas just across from the wishful new monument to international peace, a column made of a metal that looks like ice.
In Moscow, I saw a pine-green cart with the familiar round logo in the Old Arbat, across fruit and vegetable stands from the McDonald’s at the end of the pedestrian mall nearest Smolensky Bulvar and the Foreign Ministry, furthest from the end near Arbatskaya Plochad and the statue of Gogol. Keep your eyes peeled and forget the KGB: it’s Kroshka Kartoshka that is all over.