On a recent evening, Alexander Nikitin, proprietor of the Monks & Nuns restaurant, stood by his state-of the-art bar and explained that to serve a perfect glass of beer, one must be as willing to embrace technology as respect tradition.
Monks & Nuns is foremost a place of Belgian beers, so it comes as no surprise that this idea captures its overall spirit as well. Behind the veil of an old-world monastic aura, the restaurant and beer hall operates with laboratory-like precision.
Take, for instance, the weighty wooden bar just to the side of the entrance. It spans nearly eight meters and is the dining room's big attraction. But the main reason for its length is to create space for the kegs of Hoegarden White, Stella Artois and Leffe stashed underneath. Keeping them as close to the tap as possible cuts down on the distance the beer has to travel and minimizes the chances it will get warm along the way.
"About 48 degrees Celsius is ideal," Nikitin says, proudly showing off a glass goblet of golden Leffe Blond. Before being filled, each glass goes through a ritual of rinses that culminates in a jet-blast of icy water to cool it down. Indeed, Nikitin is so sure his drinks hit the table at the perfect temperature that he serves them with small ether thermometers. Customers should be able to verify the coolness for themselves, he said, but added, "No one can doubt our quality."
True, all of this is just a matter of a few pedantic degrees. But some will thank God for it. After all, Russia is a country where, only a few decades ago, two-thirds of all available beer was poured from moldy cisterns that could be found sitting for hours on city streets. Beer culture has evolved tremendously here over the last 10 years, and places such as Monks & Nuns are likely to advance it further.
Still, this restaurant struggles on a weekend night. Its out-of-the-way location is certainly a disadvantage, as are the prices. Monks & Nuns is hidden in a small courtyard, which in turn is tucked into a small alleyway that is about a six-minute walk from the nearest metro. Most of the people who come here are return customers from nearby.
But the location was chosen because of the character of the room, a cellar with an abbey-like atmosphere, and Nikitin has done a good job transforming it into a restaurant aspiring to look like a Low Country crypt chapel.
In the room's current incarnation, the walls are covered with uneven layers of a dark, washed-out paint. Near the ceiling runs a row of windows depicting Trappist or abbey beer labels in stained glass. (The Belgian Embassy was enlisted to help out with the designs.) Waitresses and bartenders don Benedictine-style frocks. There are plenty of candles, and best of all, there is a dartboard nailed to an old wooden door.
The beer menu features both Trappist and abbey beer, and is set to expand in the near future (Monks & Nuns has only been open since September). Chimay, with an average price of 130 rubles for .33 liters, represents the former; Leffe, the latter, at 120 rubles for .33 liters. There are also fruit beers, such as Belle-vue Framboise (160 rubles) and De Konink Antoon (290 rubles for .75 liters), among others.
Ultimately, this is a restaurant, so coming hungry is not a bad idea, either. Mussels are a Belgian staple, and here they come pan-fired with lemon and olive oil; with garlic, butter and herbs; or with Leffe beer and cheese (265 rubles each). Other hot starters include tiger shrimp with garlic sauce (495 rubles) and mushroom ragout a la Trappiste, which is served with deep-fried onions, Chimay beer and cheese.
Deep pockets will allow for crab stuffed with bean shoots, leek and Parmesan cheese a main entree that totals 800 rubles. There is also the salmon topped with red caviar sauce (455 rubles), lamb with baked potato, fries and grilled zucchini (630 rubles) and the Abbot dinner: baked marinated pork served with Dijon mustard or barbeque sauce (270 rubles). For dessert, don't miss the crepes.
MONKS & NUNS
3 Sivtsev Brazhek Per.