Moscow’s cafe culture has been transformed over the years: after years of over-priced ‘see and be seen’ affairs or mediocre fast-food chains a welcome range of new openings in the past 18 months or so has taken us back to basics. Finally the city is embracing a kind of street food culture that values quality cooking and fresh ingredients ahead of pafosny posturing.
Laffa Laffa is the latest in this wave. It has two sites – one on Malaya Bronaya, the other on Neglinaya – and specialises in Middle Eastern cuisine. That means plenty of hummus and falafel, two dishes that have recently become fashionable across Moscow, but the star of the show, undoubtedly, is the shawurma.
Whatever experiences you might have had with shawurma before, rest assured that this is far removed from the old-school kiosk food that has largely disappeared from the city as mayor Sergei Sobyanin cut his swathe through the dubious vendors thronging every metro station.
Here the emphasis is absolutely on quality: meat and veg are freshly sourced each day and the ‘laffa’ flatbread that gives the cafes their name is baked to order at blistering speed. It all takes a bit longer than a minute to put the dish together – not quite the fastest food in town, but a more than fair compromise between time and quality.
Although Middle Eastern in aim, the concept was inspired more by the 15 years the owner of the business spent living between Moscow and London. Like many people familiar with both cities, she noticed that one had a vibrant, multi-national culinary scene and the other had, well, dodgy kiosks next to metro stations or ultra-pafosny posing palaces with next to nothing in between. Laffa Laffa aims to fill that gap.
Key staff were recruited from Lebanon and Syria to ensure authentic recipes – head chef Ali Al-Tikriti comes from Lebanon with several years’ experience of restaurant in his native Beirut and in Dubai; many of his colleagues arrived from Syria. Zen has come up with a menu that is both simple enough not to risk running astray but sufficiently varied to ensure that either of the two cafes would bear regular visits from nearby workers heading out on lunch breaks. The signature shawurma can be served with lamb or chicken, or falafel for vegetarians. There’s also a choice of sauces, from traditional hummus to a seldom seen (in Moscow, at least) amba sauce, a fruity confection based on mangoes that goes especially well with the chicken. Although advertised as spicy, Western palates may feel it’s a Russian take on spice, but that arguably helps the flavour come out and complement the meat rather than overpowering it beneath a big hit of chili.
It’s also worth exploring the dips: aside from hummus, there’s a good selection of rich, smoky vegetable mixes that just cry out to be scooped up on a hunk of laffa bread and wolfed down. The mukhamara, with a nutty after-taste, is certainly worth closer inspection. Once again, it’s a menu with plenty of choice for vegetarians – another selling point in a city where meat-free dishes are not always very easy to find. At present menus are only available in Russian, and the staff’s English is somewhat nervous, but the choices are straightforward enough to suggest that a fairly elementary grasp of Russian will be sufficient to place your order.
Neither cafe is large, and the tend to have a busy, lively atmosphere – especially at lunchtimes. The décor, informed by the street food concept, has a pop-art, graffiti-like vibe that fits in nicely with the ‘urban-trendy’ audience. It’s some distance from the pastiche Middle East of Sindibad, the long-serving restaurant from that region; it’s a bit edgier and cooler than that, and there’s no sign of rugs, curtains or shisha pipes anyway to be seen. That’s not to say it’s exclusively a hipsters’ paradise: both branches have become popular with some locals, particularly the Malaya Bronnaya site, which is even building an audience among the privileged pensioners around Patriarshiye.
Will it be a success? It deserves to be. Prices are reasonable for city-centre eats; a shawurma snack is 310-390 roubles depending on filling, dips and sambusiki (small parcels of stuffed savoury pastry) are 250 a serving and the whole thing, complete with a coffee and maybe a nibble of pakhlava compares favourably with a trip to Starbucks, making it a competitive city centre option. Laffa Laffa is also starting out at a good time, capitalising on the popularity of the hummus and falafel stalls that did a roaring trade in city parks and food festivals during the summer and offering them a more permanent home.
Admittedly, we’ve seen a few food fashions come and go – the brief Tex-mex craze that flickered and then died on a pyre of rising rents and falling sales springs to mind – but this project has a more enduring feel about it. First, the commitment to high quality food augurs well. Second, it seems apt to expand an existing market rather than trade purely on novelty. And third, as the rapid rise in sushi bars has proved in the past and the rise of cheap-and-cheerful Georgian joints is currently demonstrating, it is possible to pitch for that middle ground gap here, even with foods traditionally associated with a full-on restaurant experience or an expensive foreign holiday.