One of the best things about a trip to Kiev or St Petersburg is the range of super-quality mid-price cafes, bars & restaurants on offer – no wonder there howl about Moscow prices. Of course, Moscow has always had a few places not aimed at the expense-account gravy-trainers… but it's still been a sadly limited range, and they disappear with frightening frequency. The latest newcomer to the "demokratichny" sphere is Prostye Veshi (Simple Things), a smallish cafe-bistro across the road from Krasnopresnenskaya metro.
The retro-metro interiors come as no surprise, but it’s a formula that works well elsewhere - so why not? Bright white walls lit with downlighters, old b/w pictures on the walls, sturdy furniture evoking the post-war confidence of the 1950s. And although the prices aren't quite post-war, they're cheerfully old-fashioned too, and you’ll leave Prostye Veshi with even bigger smiles than when you arrived.
Price, though, isn't the only reason to be cheerful. The service is warm, friendly and personal, there are English-language menus obviously done by a native speaker (no howlers or blunders), and - somewhat amazingly - an extensive drinks menu that's entirely available. Parking nearby (or even directly outside) is a breeze, unfortunately - and since I held the car-keys for the evening, I went for a non-alcoholic cocktail, a mint frappe (a mere 80 Rbs). OK, hands up all those who thought - like me - that this was going to be a milkshakey concoction? In fact it's a rum-free mojito cocktail, identical in every way except without the hooch in it - and as an option for the cop-fearing quaffer it's not just good, it's excellent… and I had two. My Official Food-Taster for the evening was looking a little starboard, but a glass of Malaga Cruz port - for only 90 roubles - soon corrected the steering, but left us wondering if the prices weren’t perhaps listed in Serbian dinars.
On to the munchies, of which there’s a short but seasonal menu - six or seven options for salads, and the same kind of range for soups and other first courses, an identical number of main courses, and a goodish range of desserts. So, err, why so limited? The answer - according to Irina Khodzinskaya, who set the place up - is that the menu will change completely every two months, offering the best of each season's top picks. If you're reading this review any time in 2007, it won't be the late-2006 menu we tried! Portions are outstandingly generous, so we shared a green salad with chicken livers, weighing in at 210 roubles for a giant plateful. The mixed green and red leaves of lollo rosso, fennel and more partnered the scrumptious chicken perfectly - perhaps not everyone would appreciate the liver so lightly fried perhaps, but we tucked this away with great pleasure, only lamenting the absence of a squeeze of lemon, or perhaps a flash of balsamic vinegar to offset the broad flavour of the chicken livers? Autumn soups caught our fancy, so we had one each - and what a contrast they were! My favourite mistake in most restaurants is to be lured by exotic-sounding dishes which fail to deliver - but this time I hit pay-dirt, and the pumpkin soup (130 Rbs) was light, delicate, exuded freshness, and combined some satisfying hunks of pumpkin with some toasted pumpkin-seeds as a garnish. Unhappiness sadly ensued across the table over the rival chestnut soup (130 Rbs) - which seemed to be mainly hot cream and a dancing-troupe of pork pieces who went uncredited on the menu-listing. Chestnuts can be indigestible things at the best of times, but they were so little in evidence here that at least you need have no fears on that score. The home-made onion bread looks delicious, but had an over-chewy texture which clearly announced "sprinkled with water and microwaved." What a pity - the taste was excellent, the appearance good, and probably it had been very nice before going into the micro?
Fast-forward to the mains, and here we were more than happy. Ms Food-Taster's leg of lamb (at 390 Rbs the priciest item on the entire menu) was so tender it fell apart out of sheer desire to please the eager eater - happiness and bliss quickly returned, although further comment was mostly muted by appreciative lip-smacking noises. I fared just as happily with the trout with fennel & herbs, and in fact the roast fennel proved a highlight - I'd expect just a smidgeon of it tucked inside the trout, but it came as a garnish. The trout itself was perfectly prepared, moist, and fragrant from a lemon-herb marinade. Paradise, it seemed, was available on earth, and for cash prices… but some element of earthly woe was needed to prevent us just floating away in ecstasy, and this was provided in the form of the most stylishly impractical serving-style of 2006… serving the whole fish on a rimless wooden slat the same width as the fish. Open the thing to remove the bones - and fish-juices lap-out all over the table. Any angle of attack here will produce the same graceless results. I found myself longing for that tired cliche of old-fashioned dining habits - a normal plate? You can't take me anywhere, you see.
We finished-off sharing a largish dessert portion of fresh melon slices (80 Rbs) - Ms Taster would have preferred them ready-peeled, but the old hippy within me appreciated the absence of such supermarket-style convenience. Despite a single sad soup slip-up and a perverse plating pecadillo, the whole experience was succour for both body and soul, and for prices last seen in Moscow when the Metro used green-plastic tokens. This happy combo of bonhomie and wallet-friendliness attracts a crowd, and although it's exactly the kind of place you'd like to drop into when you can't be arsed to make supper at home, in fact you'll probably have to book a table if you plan coming after 8pm - the venue is small and they’re chronically short of tables. The kitchen closes at 11pm, but you can munch your dessert and raid the drinks-menu for bargains until midnight. They even take credit cards and allow you to smoke if you wish. Get rid of the Beatles tape guys, and it's a winning formula.