To quote a writer friend of mine, like myself a reluctant transplanted Muscovite, “Every Moscow restaurant is a theme restaurant. The theme is that you’re not in Moscow.” The same principle could be applied across the city, from tiny boutiques to whole residential neighbourhoods dedicated to fantasies of London, Paris, and Rome — Moscow’s three traditional points of inspiration and envy. Lately, however, I keep noticing among them a new, suspiciously familiar beacon. What Moscow, or at least a certain key demographic within it, increasingly wants to be is Brooklyn. More specifically, Williamsburg.
Doubters may be directed to any number of new bohemian-oriented businesses dotting the city: from Chop-Chop, a barbershop slavishly reproducing the Brooklyn aesthetic on both its walls and its customers’ heads, and its female equivalent Annie Hall, to the magazine-slash-community centre Seasons Project, which profiles Brooklyn artisans on its pages and offers training to their Russian counterparts in real life; from Fott, a clothing store on a mission to familiarise Moscow with American heritage brands, to bow tie makers Engineer Garin (no relation to Engineered Garments — the reference here is to an old Soviet sci-fi novel) and Chekhov (who, with that name, should really consider a line of pince-nez); from Ukuleleshnaya, a ukulele and vinyl shop, to Moscow Cheesecake (self-evident); and finally, from Ferma at Home, an organic produce delivery service, to its catering partner with the thundering QED of a name — Williamsburg Studio. I have left out roughly half a dozen places dealing exclusively, or mostly, in cupcakes.
"To a progressive Muscovite, London is too directly associated with the oligarchs that have flooded it; Paris is too fusty; Rome, too chaotic"
On a slushy January afternoon, I am sitting in Oldich with Nikita Egorov-Kirillov, co-owner of the Paste and Brushes shop. Oldich is a friends-and-family bar hidden beneath a vintage clothing store — the kind of place one could scarcely imagine hatching in status-crazed, brand-mad Moscow as recently as three years ago. Egorov-Kirillov, bearded and affable, is demolishing a rosemary-laced hamburger. I can't help but check out his teeth (perfect) because Paste and Brushes is Moscow's only boutique wholly devoted to obscure toothpaste and toothbrush brands. Egorov-Kirillov, 29, got the idea for the store on his first-ever New York visit in 2011. “We realised there’s a whole class of people in Moscow that are obsessed with this kind of stuff," he says, "and they weren’t being served at all. We polled our friends — ‘What brush do you use?’ 'Oh, it’s this brand, I get it in Italy.' 'How about you?' 'I buy mine in London.'” In less than two years since, he’s returned to New York seven times, staying mostly in Brooklyn. Our conversation soon dissolves into a tangle of addresses and cross-streets.
“Hey! Fedya!” Egorov-Kirillov says suddenly. Fedor Tardatyan, 37, with a similar sandy beard and chilled demeanour, swerves to sit down at our table. Tardatyan is the chef at Oldich, and a co-owner of Ferma.
“What kind of burger are you having?” Tardatyan asks.
“Beef, with rosemary.”
“Cool. It’s from Five Napkins, in New York,” says Tardatyan.
“I’ve been to Five Leaves [a cafe and oyster bar on the northern edge of Williamsburg],” says Egorov-Kirillov. “That’s a different place, right?”
“As long as it’s not Five Guys Burgers & Fries,” I offer in a vain attempt to out-New York these guys. “That one’s not great.”
“Although Gwyneth Paltrow does recommend it on Goop,” replies Tardatyan, and I almost fall off my chair.
So why Brooklyn, specifically? Well, to a progressive Muscovite, London is too directly associated with the oligarchs that have flooded it; Paris is too fusty; Rome, too chaotic and, in its mix of historic majesty with gleeful corruption, too much like home; and Tokyo, while cool, is unknowable. In a strange way, Brooklyn gives Moscow an idealised version of its most authentic self.
The resulting scene is incestuous, as such scenes tend to be, even in Brooklyn itself, where Mast Brothers Chocolate, Early Bird Granola, Brooklyn Brine Co. and dozens of other precious mini-producers co-exist in an endless loop of shared spaces and customer bases, the latter including the players themselves. So it is here. Paste and Brushes sells its wares at Chop-Chop and is in talks to take over a shelf at Oldich. Chop-Chop has moved into the old Fott space. Ferma has moved into the old Chop-Chop space. Flacon, a decommissioned glass factory turned artisan cluster, houses Seasons Project — in whose event space Ferma and Williamsburg Studio sometimes operate — as well as Paste and Brushes' main retail outlet. Ferma and Williamsburg Studio are also running street food kiosks in Gorky Park; Ferma's, which slings Mexican corn inspired by Cafe Habana, features a rusty metal sign that Tardatyan lugged home from Brooklyn Flea market and NYC-brand condoms at the counter.
Granted, some of these details betray a whiff of hobbyism. It is not easy to imagine each one of the above endeavours scaling itself up to the point of profitability. All, however, condition the public to a certain idea of cool — rustic, rootsy, rugged — that used to be thoroughly alien to Moscow. And that idea works. Fott, whose focus on American workwear with a designer price point I used to consider somewhat quixotic, has recently expanded into a massive three-storey space on Dmitrovsky Pereulok, in the heart of Moscow’s high-end boutique district. It's not that they have successfully converted the city's Zegna and Brioni fans to the cult of Alden shoes and Carhartt jackets; it’s that they didn’t have to. An entire new demographic has come of age, and into the money required for places like Fott to thrive. The fact that Carhartt's purposefully gritty, made-in-Detroit aesthetic could even begin to seem appealing here says more about the maturation of the Russian middle class than any social study.
"Once you are passionate about this stuff," says Egorov-Kirillov, "it is no longer embarrassing to stand behind the counter." He seems much more reticent about his day job — an in-house attorney for a financial firm. Indeed, Moscow's apostles of Brooklyn-ness and their customers are locked in a fascinating dance. If indie consumption — the kind that drives a person to obsess over Curapro toothbrushes and farm-fresh ricotta — is a kind of escapism, a way of forgetting that you're in Moscow, then so is the small entrepreneurship that services it. In a way, this trend is perfectly of a piece with what’s happening in Brooklyn and elsewhere. Call it a response to the peculiar predicament of the creative class: too cool for the mass market, not rich enough for the luxury market, it has created an in-between micromarket whose one basic requirement is unscalability.
In Moscow's case, however, this wilful cult of the small-scale is overlaid with additional meanings. This is, after all, the city where just two companies (the Novikov Group and Ginza Project) own just about every restaurant; where every rouble poured into modern art galleries or design institutes can easily be traced back to oil and gas money; where any indie media project or grassroots organisation can turn out to be Kremlin-sponsored astroturf. In a place like this, making corn on a stick for a few friends is not a business; it's a way to keep one's sanity.
The best indicator of the scene's ultimate vitality, however, is that the mainstream is beginning to rip it off — and with some success. Last year, Arkady Novikov, whose above-mentioned restaurant empire includes an eponymous blockbuster in London and nine different restaurants on one single block of Kuznetsky Most in central Moscow, has opened an unassuming little storefront called Lucky Noodles. A faux-Chinatown noodle shop with a carefully aged sign, Malaysian Star Wars posters and dirt-cheap food, it was hipster heaven. Novikov had originally thought he was creating a clever front for Mendeleev, a fancy cocktail bar hiding downstairs. While Mendeleev stood empty, Lucky Noodles drew crowds. Novikov has already opened a second location. This time without the cocktail bar.