Moscow: 3 Meals in 3 Days

The Brooklyn of Moscow

The Brooklyn of Moscow

Although this was not my first business trip to Moscow, it was the first in which I got to experience a bit of the city. Did I have stroganoff? No. I did, however, get to see some of Moscow’s hotspots. If you don’t speak Russian and you need to get around, use Uber for cashless transactions or Yandex Taxi if you have rubles on you. You can plug in your destination so you *hopefully* won’t get lost and need to google-translate your way home. Free wifi is usually available at most hotels and cafes so just linger outside of one long enough till you connect.

Buro Canteen 24/7

Buro Canteen is the latest project from Buro 24/7 Russia. If you’re wondering where the Muscovite hipsters hang out, I would imagine it’s at this cafe. The Canteen is located in the middle of an industrial-turned-hip complex that could easily be mistaken for the Highline or Williamsburg. The interior decor is a Soviet Art Deco dream made for Instagram: large vibrant posters, a hand-lettered chalkboard menu, an illustrated world map, and an instant photo booth in the bathroom – need I say more?

Apparently the spot does, in fact, cater to a lot of creatives working in big fashion companies nearby which was what Mira Duma, Buro 24/7 founder, was hoping for when she decided to open the concept there. The Canteen was created in partnership with Girl Power LLC, the group behind The Slow Kitchen and B152|Tearoom (both also in Russia).

The menu is changed regularly and has a variety of options. We ordered zucchini & feta rolls, burgers, and fries. The ketchup was a winner.

White Rabbit

Located on a snazzy rooftop of a hotel/shopping center, White Rabbit has a full view of the city of Moscow through its large semicircle windows. The decor is shabby chic, with large armchairs and psychedelic Nat Geo photographs of wild mushrooms scattered among portraits of rabbits dressed in Victorian costumes. It’s as if the Mad Hatter invited you to come have drinks and ravioli.

We had great cocktails: a raspberry passionfruit cosmopolitan and a mandarine bourbon mix. Although we weren’t eating lobster or anything of the sort, they made us wear bibs before dinner. The guys’ version had bow ties and ladies had necklaces. I think we smelled like camera-happy tourists so they wanted to give us the full experience because we got smokey sorbet on the house for dessert. Waiters speak English! Yes!

Mendeleev

So this is another place that I would expect to find in NYC. It’s entrance is inside the fast-food Chinese Lucky Noodles joint. To the right of the register, there’s a bouncer blocking a staircase that leads to a speakeasy-like gastropub from the 1920s. The bar has barely any chairs and you have to pay minimum charge for a table. If you plan on eating and drinking, you might as well just get a table because your bill will come out to about the same.

It gets really crowded by midnight and you wouldn’t even guess that there’s a financial crisis going on in this city. However, I’m pretty sure those affected by it aren’t hanging out at an underground pub named after the guy who discovered the periodic table. And what an appropriate name it is: the bartenders work like chemists, mixing concoctions based on what you want because you can’t read the all-Russian cocktail menu. Drinks are excellent* and the music was just like being out in Beirut, house that got deeper as the night got later.

* meaning they don’t taste like diluted alcohol and you don’t need to wait till your third to actually enjoy not tasting what you’re ingesting

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My First Visit to Tripoli

The men in the mosque

The men in the mosque

While waiting for the bus to take us there, a few Americans told me about how they had been living in Lebanon for over two years and still hadn’t made the trip to Tripoli. I think I relieved their guilt when I told them that, after 15 years, I had never been either…and I’m Lebanese. After posting a few photos and sharing my trip with friends, their reactions were, “shu akhadik 3a trablos?” (what made you go to Tripoli?). I need justification for going to a place that is a fundamental part of my nation’s history.

Mira Minkara has been organizing walking tours of Tripoli since last year and also does a separate tour dedicated to Oscar Niemeyer’s abandoned architectural projects there. I can’t say that the tour was well-planned: we didn’t go to the crusader’s castle or the valley of the churches because the priests were out for Sunday lunch or enter the Taynal Mosque because it was prayer time and there was a funeral right after. We also didn’t get to walk through the city streets like a local. Compared to other walking tours I’ve been on, I did not feel like an inconspicuous fly on the wall experiencing an area’s dynamic. When you’re in a group of over 40 people, mostly foreigners, being led through tight low-ceiling alleys by a woman yelling through a megaphone, you tend to stand out. At some point, as we were all buying kaak and barazi, a store owner jokingly yelled out, “el ingleez ehtalo elbalad!” to his friend across the way. It means “the English have occupied the country!”

Mira walked us through the old souk, various hamams, and a few khans. Unlike Beirut, Tripoli’s older parts are not mixed with the new ones. Old and new Tripoli are separated but, like Beirut, its heritage sites are under the threat of development: the site where the Ottoman serail once stood is going to be converted into a parking lot.

The old souk itself feels more authentic than that of Byblos which has become more commercialized: catering to the tourists looking for fez hats, belly-dancer scarves with dangly gold coins, and fossil replicas. Tripoli’s souk has yet to be overrun with that sort of merchandise or clientele. The hamams, some renovated and some rotting, are magnificent. Hamam el Nouri, hidden behind a saj place, is aging beautifully. I’m a fan of the way it’s disintegrating naturally. Hamam Ezzeddine, on the other hand, is freshly painted and adorned with roll-up banners explaining each room and process. I do hope that the renovation stays true to its original design but I won’t deny that architectural botox can remove some of the historical spice. When you enter a space that was once occupied by the Ottomans ages ago, you want to feel that. It would be a shame to wipe away the wrinkles, dabbing some foundation on the rough edges should be enough for preservation. Khans, inns with a courtyard, were areas that seemed to be dedicated to one type of craft. Khan el saboun for soap makers, khan al khayateen for tailors, and so on. The soap makers were my favorite. Besides the smells and spirals of colorful bricks, it was endearing watching an old man tell his young daughter where the mint-scented soaps were. It was a family business of craftsmen. I’m a sucker for artisanal families.

OTHER TRIPOLI TIDBITS:

  • In a workshop loaded with copper and brass pieces, we found a man hammering away at a bowl. Some artforms are still alive if you look for them. I got a little copper rakweh (Arab coffee pot) for $5. What a steal.
  • Outside of Mzaar Saydit Younes, a small altar dedicated to the Virgin Mary, a veiled Muslim woman was asking a Christian woman about sainthood and differing beliefs. When I see Lebanese people trying to understand one another rather than argue over what they believe in, I am comforted that we are not all sectarian sheep.
  • An Arabic-speaking German woman living in Ras el Nabaa, who previously lived in Egypt, was talking to the table of other Lebanese while she ordered her own hummus. I’m pretty sure we all assumed she’s a spy. That’s just how it is.
  • Hamam el Abed was named as such because an escaped slave from Akkar used it as a refuge before he was murdered there. It’s the only operational hamam left but it’s only for men.
  • Although I want to believe that our Lebanon hasn’t been tainted, I saw ISIS stickers on the plaque of a tomb. Uh oh.
  • New Arabic word: tawashiya means eunuchs.

Right now, Tripoli has a reputation for being dangerous so most tend to avoid heading that direction unless they have to. But what was our excuse when things were calmer? Perhaps it’s more about the fear of the unknown. The ripples from terror that affect Tripoli don’t reach our capital city with the strength you would expect. Unless you are from there, what happens in Tripoli might as well happen in Iraq; the reactions are the same. To a lot of the people of Beirut, Tripoli is far, off in the north, almost its own state. In reality, it’s less than a two-hour drive away. Next time you’re there for halawit el-jibn from Abdulrahman Hallab, take a stroll in the city too. Buy a bar of soap. See Lebanon.