“The Russians are coming” used to mean we felt in danger of being invaded. Now, it means that they are taking over by ostentatious spending. Decades ago, the same was said of wealthy Arabs.
As the French might say, the more things change, the more they stay the same. We see rich foreigners as sultans of bling.
Much of this xenophobia greeted the opening of Novikov, an expensive London establishment owned by Arkady Novikov, whose Novikov Restaurant Group employs 7,000 people in more than 50 restaurants in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Novikov is divided into three areas: a fancy basement bar where the drinks are short and the women tall; a pan-Asian restaurant where Hakkasan meets China Tang; and an Italian whose chef, Carmelo Carnevale, is also responsible for the kitchen in Regent’s Park, London, of Khalid Bin Sultan Bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia, according to a press release. (That’s Prince Khalid to you and me.)
If you think Novikov might be expensive, you wouldn’t be wrong. It’s easy to spend more than 100 pounds ($158) a person, even if you remain in the foothills of the wine list. The prices are reminiscent of the Sketch stratosphere or possibly of China Tang, where bar manager Andrew Pengelly worked before.
Bouncers and Buzz
Is Novikov any good? Yes, it is. While I don’t like the bouncers at the door, I do like the buzz of a venue so many people want to enter; I like the greeters who look like models; I like the rich customers; I even like the food.
Downstairs at the Italian, you can taste the quality of the ingredients and appreciate a chef who resists the temptation to mess with them. Order mozzarella with tomatoes and basil; pan-fried mixed mushrooms topped with two fried eggs and Norcia truffles (18.50 pounds); taglierini with pecorino (seven months aged) and pepper; charcoal beef tagliata with rocket and Parmesan, and you have a fine meal before you reach dessert.
You also have a food bill of 68.50 pounds, plus 12.5 percent service. No wonder a meal for two cost 236.25 pounds. Yes, wine was involved, but not as much as you would think and not as much as I wanted when I saw the bill.
It’s a similar story in the Asian restaurant, where I had some of the sweetest and most willing service in a long time. Well, I did for dinner. At lunch, a waiter refused to put the wine close enough for us to pour it -- preferring an ice bucket across the room -- and then stared blankly into space when our glasses were empty. I was waving like Prince Harry playing beach volleyball in Rio de Janeiro. At Novikov’s prices, inattentive service isn’t an option.
The food isn’t bad. It’s not Hakkasan quality for the Chinese, or Dinings for the Japanese, or Sedap for the Malaysian, but for an Asian greatest-hits menu, it’s as good as you might expect. (The head chef is a New Zealander, Jeff Tyler, formerly of the Mandarin Oriental Marrakesh.) The place is quiet at lunchtime and jumping like a disco at dinner.
If you are affluent, Novikov is a lot of fun. Millions of pounds have been lavished on the decor. It’s glamorous. It’s rich. If it were a private club, I’d be trying to get in. It’s the kind of place that divides opinion. Whatever you hear, the best reaction is: Trust but verify.
The Bloomberg Questions
Cost? More than 50 pounds a head for food.
Sound level? Above 75 decibels in the restaurants.
Inside tip? Go as a guest, not a host.
Special feature? The bar is hopping.
Will I be back? Yes, if someone else is paying.
Date place? Yes, if I was really attracted to someone.
Rating? Italian ***. Asian **.
Novikov is at 50a Berkeley Street, London, W1J 8HA. Information: +44-20-7399-4330 or http://www.novikovrestaurant.co.uk/.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor.
Sound-Level Chart (in decibels): 65-70: Office noise. 70-75: Starbucks. 75-80: London street. 80-85: Alarm clock at closest range. 85-90: Passing bus. 85-95: Tube train.
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. He is U.K. and Ireland chairman of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. Opinions expressed are his own.)