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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Garlic Lover's Paradise in Moscow

Like dressing as a Sikh or a uniformed police officer, eating vast amounts of garlic is a high-profile activity. This is something anyone considering eating at Moscow's wonderful Elegance restaurant should take into consideration.


The Elegance is an Armenian restaurant. And that means lots of garlic -- garlic in sauces, soups, cold cuts -- in fact, in nearly everything but the desserts. It is the garlic that contributes greatly to Armenian cuisine's full-bodied flavor, and makes dining at a place like Elegance a welcome break from the sometimes anemic tasting and often skimpy portions of some of Moscow's better European restaurants.


Taste, of course, is not the only reason to eat garlic. It is a substance hailed by some as a wonderfood capable of combating everything from heart disease to flea infestations, neither of which has anything to do with the Elegance.


The Elegance -- known as the Yerevan until about a year ago -- is not one of those restaurants where diners feel transported to another place and time by the decor and service. The drop ceilings, burgundy velvet drapery, loud live band and perfectly competent wait staff don't do much to set the Elegance apart from its high-end, post-Soviet counterparts. It is the food that makes the Elegance shine.


Take, for example, the mellow Salad from the Chef ($10) -- roasted eggplant, pepper, garlic and tomato topped with ground walnut and bathed in what tasted like olive oil. This salad, wrapped in a sheet of fresh, tortilla-like Armenian lavash ($4 for 300 grams) has a warm, sensuous taste that, with a little imagination and wine (1995 French Merlot, $25 a bottle), evokes the essence of Armenia.


Another cold appetizer recommended by an Armenian dining companion was the plate of Basturma and Sudzhuk ($11). The tangy, cured beef basturma was fresh and seasoned with garlic and cumin. It bore little resemblance to that found in Moscow's markets, where the basturma often looks like beef jerky left over from some 19th-century trans-Atlantic sea voyage. The sudzhuk, a lamb sausage, was also fresh and garlicky. The other cold appetizers, not all of them Armenian, include Calf's Tongue with Horseradish ($11) and Turkey Satsivi ($13), a traditionally Georgian dish.


Leery of the restaurant's non-Armenian dishes, we opted for the Tzhvzhik, a superbly tender and iron-rich plate of sauteed beef liver with onions that was much easier to eat than it was to pronounce.


The diner looking for an exotic dish with good value might want to order the Spass soup ($5), which offers a blend of tastes that are at first unsettling but, eventually, endearing. Made with a beaten egg, rice and coriander, this soup owes its peculiar taste to a stock made from madzoon, an Armenian dairy product similar to kefir that gives Spass a slightly sour tone.


From the hot dishes, my Armenian friend steered us toward the Lyulya Kebab ($10), which she described as a commonly prepared dish and a good barometer of the kitchen's capabilities. "My mother makes better," was her assessment of the cylindrical ground lamb. While perfectly edible, it should have spent time on hotter coals to give it the crunchy exterior that is the hallmark of a superior lyulya kebab.


Other dishes that were quite good include the moist Chicken Shashlik ($11) that came with a roasted tomato, raw onions and a gravy boat full of tangy red sauce, and the Suckling Piglet ($12), consisting of three crispy-skinned pieces of pork, assorted greens and several baked potatoes. For less heavy fare, check out a plate of Tolmah ($9), or dolma -- some 15 pieces of ground meat wrapped with grape leaves. They were tender, fresh, topped with a yoghurty white sauce and quite garlicky.


As for the stinking rose, diners at Elegance should consider themselves lucky that they live in the garlic-tolerant country that is Russia -- and consider themselves warned about the dangers of eating it in Western locales. My Armenian friend tells the story of her grandfather, a doctor working in New York, who spent years carefully avoiding the odiferous wiles of basturma. But one New Year's Eve he succumbed and was promptly summoned on an unexpected house call. After being treated, the patient declared, "You're a great doctor, but you have terrible breath."





Elegance is located at 9 Maly Ivanovsky Pereulok. Rubles only. Open from noon to midnight. Live music nightly. Each meal comes with 50 free grams of Armenian brandy. Tel. 917-4699. Metro: Kitai-Gorod.