Moscow's bargain brunch

Sunday brunch has now become as much an institution in Moscow as it has always been in New York. There may be nowhere here yet that shows such flair for this curious occasion as the Waldorf Astoria (delicate pastries, ice carvings on each table, etc.), but this town is getting there. Virtually every Western hotel serves this strange breakfast-running-into-lunch meal and you can now have brunch with classical music, opera, tinkling piano or every species of piped music. The Aerostar Hotel on Leningradsky Prospekt has always done just about the best working lunch buffet, so it seemed the ideal venue to try this, what should be the most relaxed of meals. In fact, we were more interested in how easygoing the Aerostar was than in the precise quality of the food. Some of Moscow's pricier hotels can be pretty uptight, but the Aerostar staff was immediately welcoming and had no problem in holding our table for 30 minutes while we took a drink in their spacious balcony bar. The welcome at the Cafe Taiga was warm, especially as we had with us a lively little friend (rising two and none too good at sitting still for long periods). A high chair was instantly produced (not something you can always rely on in this city) and no one, least of all the staff and other customers, seemed to mind his frequent excursions around the place to scrounge samples of other lunches. They probably didn't mind because all the food comes in such generous quantities. No need to bolt through the main fare to get to that sensational-looking dessert -- there was never any sign that the kitchen might run out of something. This is some feat, especially as the meal runs from 12 until 4 P.M. and there were plenty of diners who seemed to be taking full advantage of this time-lapse eating. The food is excellent and if you want to get full value for money, starvation for at least 24 hours beforehand is recommended. You start with some light breakfast pastries, then work your way through eggs benedict, little fish slices that would take greater experts than us to identify, and a host of little tit-bits with some excellent salads before you even get to the main courses. We both had the lamb, served with rice light enough to encourage you to eat too much of it. There were also beef medallions, salmon and, quite possibly, other things beside. The reason for this un-Moscow Times like vagueness is that there are so many tables of food that there is a strong chance you will finally rise from the table having missed something. This is not, however, likely to happen with the hot desserts. There are, of course, lots of mousses, gateaux and other cold temptations, but what really caught our eyes (by now considerably bigger than our stomachs) were the crepes and waffles, being prepared at a side table as you wanted them. This normally means they will run out of the relevant mixture just as you reach the head of the queue. Not the case here. Together with the cream and blueberry sauce, they tasted as good as they looked, and there was nothing to stop you sneaking back for seconds. The price for all this? It was $26 a head, which is good value anywhere, and a staggering (literally) bargain by Moscow standards. No one wonder the place is so packed on Sundays. Book at least a day in advance. The one quibble was the after-meal service. A waitress who had been attentiveness itself throughout the long, arduous meal disappeared with the credit card for 20 minutes before some mild histrionics got some action. A very minor blemish on a great Sunday blow-out. David Randall is the editor of Weekend. Vlasta Demyanenko works for Radio Russia. Cafe Taiga Aerostar Hotel 37 Leningradskaya Tel. 155-5030