I must have been 9 or 10 years old when I first had a bite of Chicken Kiev and fell in love. It was an experience I never forgot and I never thought I would taste it again for a long long time, well until I reached Russia this year. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go to the beginning first.
It was our annual summer vacation to Delhi to spend time with the grandparents; blissful days lounging around the house, leafing through Naanu’s amazing coffee table books, swivelling in his study chair, eating Naani’s yummy food, and the frequent trips to India International Centre (IIC), one of my grandfathers favourite venues to dine in Delhi, to gorge on their delicious grub. This vacation was all the more special because my dad had recently got promoted in the Indian Army and of course, we had to celebrate. So off we went, the grandparents, the parents, the brother and I to IIC to enjoy a celebratory meal.
I was always a greedy kid, never being able to make up mind as to my order, eyeing what everyone else would be eating, and wistfully wanting to have it all. The IIC was one such place which brought out the indecisive devil in me; the fancy cutlery, the courteous staff, and the continental menu (remember when it was just continental food, and not Italian, Greek, French et al) that in the 90s was all about Stroganoffs, Cutlets, Gateaus, Au Gratins, Russians Salads et al. My mother, on the other hand, was very sure of her choices. She knew what she wanted after glancing through the menu once and never second-guessed herself. She introduced me to various delectable delights and I definitely owe my foodie-ness to her. On this particular occasion, while my brother and I hemmed and hawwed and my grandfather indulged our silliness, my mom took one look at the menu and decided her main course. To this day I have no clue what I actually did end up eating that day, because all I remember of that meal is what my mom ate : Chicken Kiev.
I remember her excitement and my unbridled curiosity as we waited. While the grandfather and father were cheering over their beers, the waiter came with our food and he served the Kiev to my mother. I definitely remember thinking to myself, and I probably said it aloud too, No gravy?? That looks weird!
It was this single piece of chicken, that looked like a giant cutlet, served on a bed of mashed potatoes and rice. I thought it was a chicken drumstick, because it had a stick like protrusion which was wrapped up in foil, and couldn’t believe my mother was excited about THAT. I was 10; world cuisine was not my forte. In my head, my mom had ordered something super-weird and no, this time I did not want it.
And then she sliced into the Kiev.
I think my heart actually skipped a beat, I kid you not. All that butter that oozed out of that juicy chicken breast, it has to be one of the most vivid memories of my childhood. She sliced a portion and dipped it in the butter and gave me a bite and I just stared at it, transfixed. It looked divine, and it tasted of butter and herbs and all things nice. That’s it; my mind was made up, the next time we visited IIC I was ordering the Chicken Kiev. And of course I counted the hours until we visited IIC next, but alas, the day I placed my order it was an Indian special menu and no Kiev for Knowitall :(
Vacation over, back to school, and I forgot about my summer fling with the Kiev. Time to move on. Sigh
But this year we planned a trip to Europe and had an opportunity to spend a 10 hr layover in Moscow; And my mind flash-backed to that gorgeous summer day in Delhi, and I knew I had not forgotten Kiev a wee bit. The only thing I truly looked forward to in Russia was indulging in a plate of Chicken Kiev, even more than their chilled vodka. It just made sense, even though it’s not that the dish originated in Russia or Kiev for that matter. To this day, origins of the dish cannot be traced but the dish it comes closest to resembling is the Pozharsky cutlet where the mince is pounded with butter to give the cutlet a tender and juicy taste. Given the style of crumbing the cutlet, it is most likely a Parisian chefs discovery in the 1800s when he mixed things up for the Russian gentry, or when the French visited Russian royalty. But I knew that the only place that one could still get a decent bite of Kiev was in Moscow. (Sounds politically incorrect, or is it just me?)
We reached Moscow in the early hours of the morning, and after two metro rides (Airport express and Moscow Metro) there we were, at Red Square. Of course none of this was a breezy activity, with not much of an English speaking populace in Moscow and with me resorting to clucking like a chicken to get my friend a shawarma to munch on, but more on that later. There we were, one busy with selfies, one busy with panoramic shots, one with selfie and panoramic shots, and me just making sure we all ticked off the touristy things one can do in a 10 hr layover (which deserves a detailed post of it’s own, especially that gorgeous Moscow Metro) before we finally sat down for business.
We hunted high and low since all of us were pretty keen on having a meal in a place that served authentic Russian fare. But surprisingly there weren’t many options to be found. In fact, we found Russian Krispy Kreme but no Russian pub. Seriously!
While Sheleja and I ducked into a souvenir shop, the guys actually did a bit of legwork and found a place which looked promising. It had an extensive menu selection; Alas! It was all in Russian BUT they had pictures of the dishes in the Food section, so Win! And the selection of food and drinks looked to be Soviet – lots of cabbage and potatoes and YES, there was Kiev on the menu, lalalalalala – That’s it, we were plonking our glorious selves here for the remainder of our layover.
Our brilliant find was Varenichnaya No.1. When in Moscow and in the vicinity of the Red Square, please definitely visit this gem. And along with the no English speaking staff it is completely the real deal. Don’t get me wrong, they were actually super friendly, but we got some great gems there – gas/no gas water anyone?! (100 points to Gryffindor if you get this). But on a serious note, Varenichnaya or ВАРЕНИКИ in Russian, had an amazing retro decor, and an extremely pub like atmosphere and it seemed like we were in the right place.
Since I had been obsessing about the Chicken Kiev since we had landed in Moscow (and probably numbed the hell out of everyones brains), I thought this time no indecisiveness. However the menu, as I said, was crazy. There was a selection of dumplings, lots and lots of dumplings (the restaurant is famous for its dumplings apparently), Stroganoff and Bolognese gravies, lots of cutlets (fish, veal, chicken), and stews. I was tempted to stray from my path (Beetroot, you got me) but stayed true to focus and ordered a Chicken Kiev – 250 gms. (They ask you to order by weight, 250 gms, or 500 gms).
Along with it, the guys ordered beer and the girls, what else but, vodka – we wanted the Russian stuff but could barely pronounce anything on the menu, so just resorted to pointing through the menu and vigorously nodding our agreements to our waitresses thumbs up gestures.
The dumplings were juicy and tasty, slightly lacking in seasoning but that’s my Indian palate talking and nothing that salt, pepper and mustard sauce could not fix, and overall the quantity was tremendously generous.The Borsch stew was a mish-mash of lots of meaty stuff. The drinks were divine. And finally there it was, the Kiev, for which I had travelled a million miles for. sighhhh
Served in a mini skillet on a crusty bread with a side of mashed potatoes, this seemed a more rustic version of the Kiev of my dreams and seemed closer to the real deal. This was it, and excitedly I sliced it.
Was this the stuff my dreams were made of? Totally, and gloriously! I was in Moscow, dining on Kiev and chilled vodka, sitting with friends, and telling 10 year old me, see Kiev does come to those who wait.
Was it tastier than the Kiev in IIC? Of course not, because to be honest they can’t even be compared. One was a 10 year old’s memory in which the Kiev and the butter had acquired demi-god status, the other was a present days me experience in a Russian pub. And both are memories I would not trade for anything in the world.
At the end of the meal we had wiped our plates clean, yes even the stew, and called for the bill. The grand total of the damage was just about INR 4000/AUD 80 for a meal for 4 people with 4 mains and 2 drinks per person. Don’t get those prices in big cities in India and Australia anymore! And this was in a pub in the heart of the city of Moscow. Told you that you HAVE to visit Varenichnaya No.1!
P.S: You know not that I want to but if I had to play devil’s advocate and pick one, if I really really had to, then I would probably pick IIC Kiev over Moscow Kiev. Why, you ask? Because after all, you never forget your first, do you ;) ?