Katya Drozdova, one of Moscow's hippest restaurateurs, arrives fashionably late for her own party at a friend's summer house. "So this is how you live!" she says admiringly to the hosts, taking in the greenhouse, apple trees, strawberry beds and picnic table under a trellis overgrown with grapevines.
Behind a garden is a small creek on the edge of an enormous field of tall grasses and wildflowers, where villagers used to graze their cows. It's a classic scene at a well-cared-for dacha, the Russian name for a country housemore often than not, just a simple wooden cottage.
Even though Drozdova is late, the guests are even later. No matter: The dacha scene is laid-back above all. Since many of the cottages were allotted to workers during Soviet times, owning one isn't a luxury the way having a country house is in the West. Russians go to their dachas to relax during their short, glorious summer, when the hollyhocks grow as tall as the roofs and the sun doesn't set until after 9 p.m. People grow vegetables, make pickles and jams and gather mushrooms to marinate and serve as a chaser for vodka during the long winters. And they cook outside as much as they can, serving grilled dishes hot off the coals and family-style salads from the garden.
Drozdova's genius has been to apply this style of cooking to her restaurants. While Moscow's dining scene tends to be elaborate, theatrical and very expensive, Drozdova favors basic, seasonal recipes and low-key settings"places where the food is real," as she puts it. At her first restaurant, Simple Things, she piled vegetables on the windowsills, topped tables with brown paper and served a "dacha salad" with lettuce, tomato and cucumber smothered with dill and topped with slices of radish fresh from the gardena dish she had never before seen on a Moscow menu. Drozdova's locavore vision is a considerable challenge: Few small producers in Russia can legally sell their food to restaurants, and importing from abroad tends to be cheaper and less complicated.
Unlike many Moscow restaurateurs, Drozdova has a real understanding of Russian home cookingwhich can be hard to pin down. She explains, "What we eat at home or at the dacha is a mixture of dishes from different cultures." For example, staples commonly thought of as Russian, such as borscht and vareniki (small stuffed dumplings), actually come from the Ukraine. Shashlik, a kebab-like dish that 1/2 Russians often cook at the dacha, originally comes from the Caucasus region, the juncture of Europe and Asia that includes the country of Georgia.
Today, Drozdova is overseeing a menu by Dmitry Leonov, the chef at her 16-month-old Georgian restaurant, Khachapuri. In addition to pickles, which are always on the dacha table, she serves plenty of vegetable dishes. Of course there's a version of the dacha salad, plus two lobios, or bean salads. The red lobio is a mix of cranberry beans, celery and chile; the green one has green beans, buttery scrambled eggs and plenty of cilantro.
Typically, at the dacha, the women sit at the picnic table making the vegetable dishes while the men gather around the fire, talking, drinking and grilling the meat. "The guys around the fire are usually discussing women," jokes Semen Krymov, Drozdova's husband and business partner. "But usually not those women around the table. Some other women."
At this party, Leonov mans the grill, cooking marinated chicken, fish and pork shashlik directly on the coals. Drozdova has chosen three Georgian dipping sauces for the shashlik, including tkemali, an herb-flecked plum sauce that's especially good with pork; a walnut bazhe the chef makes with yogurt that's fantastic with chicken; and satsebeli, a tangy, smoky sauce made from grilled tomatoes, which is nice with fish.
When guests finally arrive, the sun, though still bright, has mellowed. They complain, as usual, about the traffic leaving the city and the poorly marked roadsno expedition to the country is complete without getting lost at least once. But the grill and the glasses of vodka quickly get everyone in a dacha state of mind.
Valerie Stivers-Isakova is the founder of virtualgdbk.com, a curated travel website. She writes frequently about Russia.