Russians who learned their English with the help of Jane Austen (or more likely the smouldering Colin Firth as Mr Darcy) probably know Cheapside best as a London location sneerily dismissed amid the snobbish banter of the Bennett sisters. The issue was its connection with ‘trade’, a lowly pursuit inappropriate for persons of true wealth and breeding, even though they had no scruple about buying goods in what was once London’s most fashionable shopping street.
Today, of course, trade has fewer negative connotations outside of the blue-blooded aristocracy, and the commercial hub in Belaya Ploshchad is one of Moscow’s more conspicuously busy business districts.
As a result it’s also picked up a cluster of bars and cafes – including a few representatives of Moscow’s burgeoning gourmet fast food trend – to feed the Stakhanovite shock troops of the new economic era in between vigorous sessions on tablet and Mac.
Cheapside Josper Bistro, the latest addition to the Coffee Mania portfolio, fits this branding well. The decor, described in one Russian magazine as ‘restaurants for successful men’ is loft-inspired: the kitchen, like at the owners’ Italian restaurant Barmalini, is open, although staff slaving over a hot grill make for a less exciting show than the dough-juggling pizza chefs at the partner venue. Elsewhere its bare brickwork, a retro fan and a large communal table dominating the room with a scattering of side tables for slightly more privacy. The restaurant seats 52, but there’s an expectation that people will hunker down together rather than isolate themselves on individual tables.
The menu is similarly unpretentious: meat and fish, cooked over an open flame. Pride of place goes to the burgers, with a wide assortment of diverse approaches to the old beef-in-a-bun formula. We went for the Mexican
(700 RUR), which was a surprisingly unspicy affair, even allowing for Russia’s general wariness of hot food. However, this wasn’t really the aim: instead of powering up the chili and letting rip, the chefs aimed to create a more subtle combination of flavours with a hint of fresh lime giving an unexpected lightness to the palate. Not quite as expected, but pleasant. The meat was good, among the best I’ve tried in Moscow and certainly tasty enough to encourage repeat visits to explore the other burgers on offer. Prices might be uppish compared with the old favorites at Starlite Diner or Beverly Hills, but there’s more imagination in how the burgers are put together and – on this evidence, at least – the service is a bit more attentive than can sometimes be the case as the longer established chains.
Unlike most burger joints in town, sides are ordered separately; there’s no standard burger set slapped down whether you like it or not. So, if you want fries, make sure to order them for an extra 150 RUR. Coleslaw
(250 RUR) is one of the options and it also opened up one of the great mysteries of Russian kitchens. Cabbage and carrot are key features of local food. Few Russian salads are complete with a generous slathering of mayo. So why is it that coleslaw, that stable of carrot, cabbage and mayo, always comes out very different here? This one was an impressively healthy, low fat option with just a hint of mayo to keep it together. Once again, not bad, but not quite as expected.
There’s also a small grill menu offering meat and fish. The salmon
(800 RUR) here was a success, the duck
(800 RUR), sadly, was unavailable. Vegetarians who don’t eat fish might struggle to find much on the menu to attract them, however. There’s no veggie burger and meat-free options are limited to a few salads and starters. This is a kitchen that knows what it wants to cook and is happy to focus strongly on that alone.
That straightforward ‘I know what I like’ approach is part of what makes Cheapside work. Rather than try to cover too many bases, it focuses on a small group of dishes that it can do well and chases a clientele that will go for it. Ultimately Cheapside Josper Bistro is a very masculine place to eat. Maybe it’s the plate-glass surroundings of Belaya Ploshchad, redolent of the thrusting world of smart-suited business conquistadores. Maybe it’s the meat-heavy menu. Maybe it’s the TV sport quietly playing in the background.
Whatever, this isn’t really the kind of place you’d pick for a girlie cocktail night even if there are three basic cocktails listed on the menu. Indeed it’s probably not the place you’d pick for a night out anyway. This has the feel of a lunchtime haunt; a cut above fast food or the dubious merits of the bizniz lanch, without burdening itself with the pretentions of a full-blown restaurant experience. That’s where it performs most strongly, and is likely to be the root of its future success in this location.