Zagat on Russia
The Zagat publication New York City Restaurants 2009 is the most authoritative guide to eating houses in one of the most diverse eating cities on the planet. It scores cuisines on a scale of 0-30 points based on input from thousands of diners.
For the convenience of those interested in nothing but the best, the Zagat guide lists the top three restaurants in a variety of 37 cusines on pages 13-16. It lists Turkish, Thai, Vietnamese, Kosher, Greek, Korean, Caribbean and Indian cuisines, along with more mainstream choices like French, Chinese and Italian, and lots of others.
Russian cusine is nowhere to be found on pages 13-16. It’s as if it doesn’t exist. And upon closer inspection of the encyclopedic guide, it doesn’t get much more vivid.
If you look in the index at the back of the book, you’ll find a puny total of three Russian restaurants named there. Three out of roughly 1,500 listings. Ouch.
Not one of the three Russian eateries has a score for quality of cuisine higher than 19. By contrast, not one of the top three restraurants in the Turkish, Thai, Vietnamese, Kosher, Greek, Korean, Caribbean or Indian categories on pages 13-16 has a score as low as 20. The worst top-three restaurant in any one of those categories is, in other words, better than the best Russian restaurant. Which is why, of course, Russia doesn’t make the summary of top cuisines. Quite simply, nobody even wants to prepare it, much less eat it.
New York has more Israeli restaurants than it does Russian. It has more Ethiopian, more Austrian, more Moroccan, more Belgian (yes, Belgian!) and more Dominican choices than Russian. It has five times more Argentinian or Brazilian options on offer than Russian. Five times more.
Australia — yes, Australia — has the same number of restaurant options as Russia (and no, Outback Steakhouse isn’t one of them — and even if it were, where’s the Russian Borscht Bucket?). Two of Oz’s three contenders have higher scores for cuisine than Russia’s top scorers. Germany, hardly famous among Americans for its food, has nearly three times more restaurant representatives in the Zagat guide than Russia (so does Peru!), and three of the German contenders have higher scores for cuisine than the Russians while three others match Russia’s score.
Much like the city of Moscow, none of the three Russian places are price-accessible; in other words, normal people wouldn’t visit them even if they were scrumptious. According to Zagat, a dinner for one will cost at least $50 at any one of them. Their reviews are scathing. Two of the three are praised most prominently for their vodka. The Russian Tea Room is a “tourist” trap that’s “as hard to kill as Rasputin.” The Russian Samovar is “rowdy” like “1950’s Moscow.” Firebird is characterized by “costumes” and “pomp and circumstance.” The word delicious does not appear once in any of the three estimations.
The reason for this spectacular failure of Russian cusine even in New York City (good luck looking for it in Des Moines or Miami) is exactly the same one that explains Russian failure in economic and political life: Russia won’t reform. It stubbornly clings to a failed past that has stolen as much cuisine as it has invented and which has stolen the worst, and made it even worse still. Russia simply cannot accept criticism, and therefore cannot change for the better. It goes on decade after decade stubbornly dishing up swill and blaming “russophobia” and “racism” for empty dining rooms and laughing critics.
And so it goes in Russia.