After passing through the inevitable childhood stages of popstar, princess, cat (who wouldn’t want to lounge around being petted all day?), for many years now my two dream professions have been travel writer or spy.*
*Disclaimer: if MI6 is reading this, I will happily delete this blog post, change my identity, and await your call.
My one challenge has been attempting to reconcile these two career paths to create my all-time ideal job.
Stepping off the Trans-Siberian railway (where I had already felt like a literary stereotype) onto the Yaroslavskii station in Moscow, I decided it was about time to switch up genre – from classical novel to espionage thriller. And so began my adventures as a secret agent-travel blogger, going undercover to find the best of underground Moscow.
But rather than criminal circles and drug rings, what this wandering Hunt was on the hunt for were the secrets of the best brunches, bars and brews of Moscow.
The mission began at the mysterious location of Lucky Noodles Chinese takeaway. Tucked down a seedy backstreet, the tacky red and gold paper lanterns, two grimy plastic seats, overwhelming scent of grease and soy sauce, and general polyester aesthetic would have bamboozled a lesser agent. But not this one.
Pushing my way through to a back curtain by the counter, I gave a barely perceptible nod to the man seated by it, who immediately returned the favour, straightening up and beckoning towards the curtain. Beyond I descended the stairs into an underground cellar containing one of the plushest cocktail bars I have ever seen. Chandeliers dangling from cavernous ceiling illuminated the dark mahogany tables and dwarfing red velvet chairs. I had discovered Mendeleev, Moscow’s best speakeasy.
Mission complete. Time for a celebratory drink.
Sorry Mister Bond – you can keep your shaken not stirred, it’s passion fruit martini all the way for me.
On the way home, however, the plot thickened. Midway through a midnight reconnaissance mission exploring the interior of Moscow’s stunning Eliseev (a food shop housed inside a Neo-Baroque palace) I was accosted.
The obstacle in my way was a small, bald-headed yet otherwise rather hairy Russian man, offering to buy me what he claimed was Russia’s finest ice cream from Altai in Siberia. It turned out he was also a local politician and, deciding to use the opportunity to further my reconnaissance, I accepted, questioning him on his work. I found out little – except that, as midnight snacks go, Siberian ice cream is not very satisfying.
Next I decided to spread the scope of my investigations to an international level and began an operation to uncover a hidden gem of Moscow’s underground brunch scene: Cookareku.
This kooky café dishes up breakfasts from around the world 24 hours a day, with an hourly changing recommended menu depending on the national cuisines of the countries of the world where it is 8am at that hour. Sipping coffee under a giant clock and teapot chandelier, I decided that this place, with its quirky concept and even quirkier interior, was too good of a secret to keep to oneself. Forget Watergate – Coffegate is on its way.
Stage Two of Operation Bust-Open-Moscow’s-Best-Brunches-and-Brews took me to the hallowed halls of Café Pushkin.
This famous Moscow restaurant is housed inside an old pharmacy and Russian nobleman’s library. The amazing decors and gourmet food have made it a favourite amongst foreign tourists with wallets thicker than their sense and the Russian nouveau riche. On Sundays it’s a great place to watch the oligarchs and their young wives enjoy smoked salmon, caviar and champagne brunches.
However secreted just next door is the Café Pushkin Conditionerskaya Bakery. Still absolutely stunning, this pocket sized palazzo and patisserie combines sumptuous gilded Baroque interiors with super-attentive servers who will happily refill your 60 rouble (about £1) pot of loose leaf tea as many times as you like and bizarre but fun embroidered Café Pushkin stools so your bags don’t have to rest on the floor.
Even better – on a brief scout-on to what I thought was the way to the toilet I also stumbled my way into a brightly lit courtyard, straight out of a Roman villa – statues, fountain, greenery et al. Follow up research seems to suggest that my secret passage lead me into an adjacent hotel.
The case closed it was time to head back to my hostel and then the airport as my mission in Moscow came to an end. A few mysteries were solved, a few of the city’s secrets blown open, but the best thing about Moscow is, no matter how many times you visit, there’s always something to discover. The fact that Moscow’s baffling organisation, terribly labelled Google map entries, and the reluctance of Russians to give directions, make these places a challenge to find just adds to the adventure. After all, what’s a trip without a little stumble or two on the way?