The revolving glass doors closed hermetically behind me. Moscow's sticky heat was left behind as I entered the chilled air of the glassed atrium. Modernist elevators whisked the world's Great and Good to secluded upper levels with silent unquestioning obedience, at the soft-spoken command "make it so". The first job would be to make it past the guards. However, the strange absence of a body-check, x-ray scanner, or series of impertinent questions from some juvenile Rambo only reinforced my initial suspicions that we had passed through a wormhole in the time-space continuum. I passed-by a carpet deep enough to have swallowed me alive, gently congratulating myself on evading such obvious traps, and allowed myself to be engulfed in a massive sofa until my colleagues arrived. Around me citizens of other realms closed deals on their mobiles in a Babylon of languages. How few of them knew what I knew - that this massive complex had an Achilles - heel, which could be penetrated by myself and my colleagues on a secret mission that dwarfed the scale of their billion-dollar deals. We were going to lunch.
For those of you in civilisations who have not yet mastered time travel, I should reveal that fifty of your Earth years ago, a former Cafe Ararat stood on the same site. Its clientele were soviet bohemian writers and intellectuals, for whom the promise of far-off Caucasian mountains enshrined the furthest hope of foreign exotica afforded by Stalin's People's Paradise. Photographs of the former Cafe can be seen on today's walls. It's immediately obvious that this is no rural trattoria with bentwood chairs and mama slaving in a steamy kitchen - this is the upscale end of Armenian cuisine. It's not, however, a dumbed-down or homogenised version; authenticity and quality are overseen by Master Chef Samvel Minasian. Prior to taking up his duties in Moscow, Minasian was supervising banquets for Guests of State in Armenia, as Head Chef to President Robert Kocharian. His remarkable achievement at Cafe Ararat is to maintain the simplicity implicit in Armenian cuisine - which relies on superb-quality ingredients, all flown-in specially - but present them in a style befitting a 5* international hotel. The atmosphere is laid-back and informal - the dress code is smart-casual, and cosy sofas encourage longer lounging.
The tastes and aromas of Caucasian cuisine are dominated in Moscow by Georgian food - with which expats fleeing an overdose of sour cream are already well familiar. Armenian chefs have the same broad palette of flavours and textures at their disposal, but the results are pleasingly different. There is a little "bite" in the flavouring, but it's aromatic rather than fiery. All is reliant on the freshest ingredients - the strong suits of the Armenian kitchen are imaginative purees and melanges of spiced vegetables, succulent fish, and speciality grills - all accompanied by fine local wines produced in a proudly independent tradition.
And so, to our meal. Three of us sat down to lunch and in Armenian tradition, we ordered a meze
selection of appetisers to share. If the dishes are unfamiliar, English-speaking assistance is at hand, with knowledgeable and enthusiastic insight into any dish on the menu - from portion-size to pedigree, each dish is explained with the passion of an art-historian, and with a view to their suitability as dining combination. We took several - you can adjust your selection according to your appetite, budget and available time, but a traditional Armenian meal should have the table almost collapsing under the quantity and variety served. If you like it simple, Traditional Armenian Eggplant Salad ($6) is luscious and rich, and what I especially liked was that it wasn't swimming in an ocean of cheap oil - a background aroma of light virgin olive-oil complemented the aubergines. The Selection of Smoked Fish seemed no pocket-pleaser at $22, but the giant portion of salmon, crayfish, fresh crab, and sturgeon is a meal in itself, and all excellent. Aveluk is an Armenian speciality -“ a spinach roulade cross-cut into elegant slices ($5). The Armenian cheese platter ($5) is much more interesting than it sounds, the cheeses are nicely contrasted for bite and texture. With all of this, of course, you must have Armenian flat-bread, lavash. If you can't decide, or there aren't enough of you to order a full spread of full-sized portions, Ararat will be happy to put together an Appetiser Selection based on your preferences.
The danger - as usual in Caucasian food -“ is to enjoy the sumptuous appetiser selection so much that by the time the main courses arrive, you're already on the retreat. Yes, sadly we made that mistake too, but in fairness, these are appetisers you'd happily gorge on until they were physically taken away from you. Assuming you are more prudent in your hors deoeuvres-munching than we were, you might profitably continue to the magnificent mains. Armenia is a land of lakes and rivers - its famous Lake Sevan is even pictured in a huge mural on the restaurant-s walls. Lake Sevan produces several kinds of trout, and Ishkhan trout ($23) is excellent. If you're watching the calories or fat intake, this comes steamed with aromatic vegetables and herbs, and it truly melts in your mouth. Kyufta ($18) is one of those dishes which could only come from a society which sets no price on preparation time - prime beef is first whipped, and then lightly poached into a sort of spiced meat souffle, served with an omelette garnish. However as a rule Armenian men don't like their meat overly mucked-about with, and Traditional Armenian Shashlik ($24) is exactly what you'd hope it might be - a gigantic portion of toothsomely grilled cuts, your choice of chicken, lamb or pork.
At this point we were forced to withdraw - we slunk away defeated. Diners of greater girth and determination might have proceeded further to a promising selection of innovative desserts, all retailing at $8 and unknown numbers of calories.
An excellent convention in this restaurant is the option to order wines by the glass. And not only the vin de table
, but many of the wines in the cellar. Armenia is, after all, a country in which wine-drinking is an everyday pleasure, without the strictures of a sommelier's beady eye. We had a luscious dry light red, which partnered my fish very comfortably despite all conventions to the contrary. If you wish to spend more, you can delve into their cellar of Armenian (and other) fine wines. Armenian table-water is ideal on the side.
The service is immaculate - charming, welcoming, eager to share the pleasure of Armenian food with new friends. Mind-changing and an onslaught of capricious questions about the menu were handled with bilingual aplomb. But whilst the service is five-star, the bill weighs-in mid-priced, as part of a conscious effort to encourage non-residents into the hotel's exclusive environs - there's no punchy overpricing here. A final tip - whether or not you make it to the desserts, skip your post-prandial coffee or liquer here, and instead beam-up to their Panorama Bar on the top floor, for a super rooftop view (outdoors in summer) of downtown Moscow and the Bolshoi Theatre.