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Restaurant Review September 20, 2001
 
Culinary Coexistance
By Lionel Tannenbaum Browse author
 
 

Last week's tragic events have left many of us, myself included, seeking answers. There are those eternal Russian questions, of course -- kto vinovat? (who is to blame?) and chto delat'? (what is to be done?). Sadly, the men in charge seem to have had an answer ready for that second question even before the evidence starting coming in on the first. But like many citizens of the world, I have found my questions tending toward less specific terms. Has humanity really come to this? Are we really so different? Can't we all just get along?

Again, the men in charge have their answers ready (yes, yes, absolutely not), but I beg to differ. No matter how much separates the cultures of the world, we ultimately have much more in common. And the most basic characteristic we all share is the biological need for sustenance. Indeed, certain racial-evolutionary differences aside when it comes to dealing with dairy products, we all share the same digestive tract. Through the ages food has been instrumental in bringing some very different people closer together, and now should be no different. In that spirit, I consider two Moscow eateries offering, respectively, Jewish (Carmel) and Arab (Cleopatra) cuisine.

Despite my Jewish heritage, I've always had more of an American-melting-pot taste for treats like hummus and baba ganoush, so I'll start with the Arab entry. With a palatial interior boasting literally pounds of gold leaf on the ceilings, tables, and chairs, CLEOPATRA is something of a reincarnation of the 1970s style Soviet restaurant -- among other things, a floorshow with belly dancing follows the meal. Suffice it to say that your elderly in-laws from the provinces will be pleased.

The head chef, I'm told, is Syrian, and what his rich menu lacks in pork products it makes up for with the fabled healing powers of raw lamb meat. Speaking of which, the lambs are shipped in live from Kirgizia so as to become the key ingredient in dishes such as "Kebbe na yei" (160R), a delectable appetizer that also includes wheat germ, pistachios, and a variety of spices.

Of course, a staple of any Arab meal is the "meza" sampler platter. Cleopatra's "Vizier" meza (990R) is an assortment of nine cold appetizers intended for two or three. Larger parties, however, would do well to order one or more of the "Al Sultan" mezas (2990R), in which the cold appetizers are joined by pies stuffed with cheese, meat, spinach, and our old friend the old lamb, not to mention assorted grilled meats and dessert. While devout Muslims will want to stick to the freshly squeezed fruit juices (60-90R), those who have strayed from Allah's flock will find plenty to suit them on the extensive wine list, with 60 or more French and Italian varieties to choose from.

Did someone mention breaking a few rules? Well, it seems that CARMEL is no longer a strictly kosher establishment. Nevertheless, the cuisine is still traditionally Jewish through and through. And the atmosphere (downstairs at least) is still austere enough to please the most Orthodox visiting dignitary -- we're talking submachine gunfire-resistant drapes on the windows and blue velvet walls decorated with Chagall reproductions and suitable quotations direct from the Torah. Upstairs meanwhile, there's a view of bustling Tversaya-Yamskaya Ulitsa below, televisions showing MTV, and a less formal menu with more of a pan-European outlook.

The fine Jewish cuisine downstairs includes the exquisite stuffed carp served cold with ruby-colored beet gelatin, greens, olives, and lemon wedges (435R), hearty garlic-infused lentil soup (270R), and of course the garlic bread with gefiltefish (250R). If you want a dish that actually is considered kosher but probably shouldn't be, try the veal-stuffed chicken leg (600R). The menu also boasts at least 10 varieties of shashlyk, including veal, chicken hearts, and turkey (348R) -- but no pork, of course. Kavovrogan (725R) is a stewed medley of meat of vegetables that is said to be a favorite with Bukhara Jews (even if there are only two of them left). Vegetarians, meanwhile, will prize the stuffed peppers and eggplant rolls (319R). The latter in particular resemble the familiar Georgian concoction of aubergine and nuts, although the "Jewish" rendition is noticeably less spicy. For dessert, I'm rather partial to the luscious apple strudel (280R).


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