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  • Nick Lander
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  • Nick Lander
17 Dec 2011
 

This article was also published in the Financial Times.


When my Russian grandfather finally arrived in the UK in 1910, at the impressionable age of 15, he did so with a very different view of his former countrymen than the one he had set out with.

On the last stage of his journey, by boat from Hamburg to Hull, he had watched as his fellow passengers had played cards, gambling away or, in a few instances, doubling the small amounts of cash they were travelling with. Russians, he learnt, love gambling.

The Russian instinct towards risk-taking is alive and well in their attitudes towards investment in restaurants and has manifested itself in a growing stake in a number of high-profile establishments over the past 15 years. In Moscow initially this manifested itself in Café Pushkin, Turandot, Goodman Steak Houses and the Vogue Café. Then with numerous openings in many of the smaller but still highly populated cities outside Moscow. Finally, and most recently, there is the series of Russian-controlled openings currently under way in London, Zurich and New York.

These newer openings are obviously based not just on the success of certain restaurateurs - Andrey Dellos with Café Pushkin, Arkady Novikov with Vogue Café, Mikhail Zelman with Goodman - but also on just how much high-spending Russian customers have contributed to the profitability of so many European restaurants over the past decade. Roman Abramovich and Boris Berezovsky may be currently facing one another in the High Court but they do share a passion for sushi, particularly Nobu's.

Looking back at the history of Russian investment in London restaurants in particular, it is possible to see it as a series of gambles on an increasingly large scale although the economic logic for them is definitely out of the ordinary.

Certainly, even the most popular restaurants in Moscow do not seem to be as busy as they once were. And for those who have made a considerable fortune out of them, these previous successes now present not just the opportunity to diversify but also to establish a new life where the rule of law may be more than adequate compensation for a higher rate of tax. Certainly, Novikov, the most conspicuous restaurateur in London with his recently opened, eponymous, corner site in Mayfair, seems more than happy in London with his children in school and his wife the proprietor of a hairdressing salon in the city - although he has the escape valve of Versace's former villa on Lake Como should he need it.

Russian investment in restaurants in London began in 2002 with Alexander Wolkow's opening of Sumosan, a sushi restaurant on Albemarle Street, a restaurant that had its origins in Moscow and subsequently branched out to Kiev.

This was followed by the first Goodman Steak House in nearby Maddox Street that has since spawned siblings in Canary Wharf and the City as well as an outpost in Zurich.

These restaurants are conservative in their approach and execution, specialising in expensive ingredients simply prepared. Goodman's has been particularly successful, a clever remodeling of a classic American steak house cooking good meat on the Josper grill and appealing principally to men. Our 20-year-old daughter described the atmosphere as 'incredibly male'. But while the herrings and the steaks were good, I came away from the Maddox Street branch with the impression that a great deal more attention needed to be paid to the details and particularly to the desserts.

Leonid Shutov seemed to reinforce the stereotype of the wealthy Russian restaurateur with his opening of Bob Bob Ricard in Soho, an all-day brasserie with a late bar in the basement. More recently, he has staked its claim to fame on a wine pricing policy that charges considerably less for its more expensive and sought-after bottles than any of his competitors and proudly displays the price difference alongside each bottle.

The past couple of years have seen Russian restaurateurs placing bigger bets, and not surprisingly this has involved Moscow's two biggest restaurant rivals, Dellos and Novikov, although for the time being in separate cities.

The first quarter of 2012 will see Dellos opening two restaurants in New York, a Café Pushkin at 41 W 57th Street and Manon, a French brasserie, at W 14th Street, alongside a production unit to support both. Dellos's Pushkin, Moscow, is extraordinary, a reincarnation of a Russian nobleman's house in the late 19th century that is open 24 hours a day and has become one of the city's main tourist attractions. He used his original talents as an art dealer to send a second wave of builders into Pushkin to give what had just been completed as a completely new construction the patina of a bygone age.

On the corner of Berkeley Street, his rival Novikov has made his passion for Italian and Asian food very visible by spending over £10 million on two separate restaurants linked by a central staircase that subsequently leads down further to a bar and club in the basement. (Photo courtesy of Rosie Hallam.)

My first meal in the Asian restaurant (the Italian was delayed when Novikov fired the head chef just before it was about to open) was pretty good, the pleasure of generous, well-executed portions of shrimp and coriander dumplings, black cod rolls, Malaysian crab, and soya chicken with Chinese broccoli accentuated by extremely personable service. Both restaurants are large but I believe that Novikov's success in London will depend not only on how comfortable they feel on the quieter nights but also on how much independence he delegates to his talented team.

Finally, Knightsbridge in early 2012 will witness the opening of the fourth Mari Vanna restaurant, after branches in Moscow, St Petersburg and New York. The gamble here for the Ginza Project group is that this particular building has never proved popular despite its Knightsbridge location. But with its Russian menu of borscht, beef stroganoff and cabbage stuffed with meat and rice, it would have certainly appealed to my grandfather.