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Hookahs: A Smoker’s Dream

at 07/05/2008 23:22

Five years ago a sushi craze swamped Moscow. Japanese restaurants were opening all over town, special Russian-style rolls were concocted, and your sophistication was measured by how well you could use chopsticks. And now, as yet another testimony to Moscow's multiculturalism, a new trend has taken the city by storm - hookahs.

Right around the time when everybody was losing their cigarette rights, a few smart places were introducing a fresh substitute known as the hookah, or kal'yan. Who could have imagined that a couple of years later it would be simply inappropriate not to know what a hookah was. So what is it exactly? And why is it so popular?

Hookah is a single or a multi-stemmed water pipe device for smoking that originated in India and quickly gained popularity in the Middle East. Eventually, the water pipe made it northwards. More and more people from Middle Eastern countries come to Moscow to stay and naturally want to feel more at home. The demand for more Eastern themed restaurants aroused the curiosity of native Muscovites to go and sense for themselves the taste and smell of more exotic delicacies. Sure, for Middle-easterners out there a hookah isn't a novelty but a traditional pastime. But for russians and visitors to Moscow it's something new and exciting. It did not take long for the trend to spread to bars and restaurants without an Eastern theme. Nowadays, it is possible to order a hookah with a multitude of flavors to choose from.

1. Chaihona is a chain of restaurants featuring Arabian and European cuisine with matching Eastern style interiors and a well established tradition of smoking hookahs. Now that summer is approaching it's best to visit the one in Gorky Park. There Chaihona has a large marquee draped with carpets and cushions "where you can forget that you're in a huge metropolis and after smoking the hookah for half an hour can even pretend that you're in Arabia,"  says Antonina, graduate student and an expert on Moscow night life.

Kal'yan - from 600 rubles to 2,000 rubles.

2. Beirut Restaurant offers high quality Middle Eastern cuisine at fairly low prices, but also provides a varied menu of European cuisine. There is a summer veranda, along with the VIP room and a special hall for smoking hookahs which are open all year round. This place is immensely popular with tourists and the students of the nearby People's Friendship University of Russia.

Kal'yan 250 rubles.

3. Etazh on Tverskaya Street (not to be confused with the Etazh Project) is a perfect example of the fusion restaurant. It offers soups, Japanese food and "the best hookahs you can get in a Moscow café," says Julia, a student and steady patron of Etazh. The service is excellent with "hookah men" (or kal'yanshchiki as they're called here) refreshing your smoking pipe every fifteen minutes and putting in more charcoal, thus making sure that you get an A-class experience.

Kal'yan from 600 to 2,000 rubles.

4. The name Asia Café suggests that you will be treated to something extra spicy and exotic. And while that is true in most respects, it may not be a place to go for a high quality hookah. Or maybe you just shouldn't order any fruit tobacco as its taste is flat, and stick to the regular kind. However the café offers a variety of excellent rolls to make up for its disappointing kal'yan.

Kal'yan - 500 rubles.

5. Grand Sultan on Smolenskaya goes out to please any customer that may venture into this luxuriously decorated restaurant. A mixture of European and Arabian cuisine will keep you coming back, and gorgeous belly dancers will make you never want to leave. There are different halls - one with tables and chairs for lunches and dinners, the other with low sofas and cushions for smoking the hookahs. The atmosphere "reminds you of the Middle East and kal'yanshchiki dressed in traditional Arabian clothes add to that impression," says Anna, graduate student of Moscow State University.

Kal'yan - 600 rubles and higher.

6. Café Sindibad was one of the first Arabian style eateries opened in Moscow. It offers homemade Leba­nese cuisine and states kal'yan as its main attraction. Special attention is paid to explaining about the history and etiquette of smoking the hookah: "Here it is a philosophy, not just an entertainment." This café is in­deed a pioneer of Arabian style in Moscow and to this day keeps to that image.

Kal'yan 390 rubles.

7. Sorbet Restau­rant on Sukha­rev­skaya is a charming place which, ac­cor­ding to the patrons' discussion on one of the restaurant forums, "lures you in with its balmy air and hospitable waiters." There have been some mixed emotions about this place with most people complaining about the slow service. But all in all positive atmosphere, excellent food and great kal'yanshchiki are able to distract you from any inconveniences that may occur.

Kal'yan from 650 to 1,500 rubles.

8. Marrakech Restaurant on Push­kinskaya is one of the best Middle Eastern restaurants in Moscow. Everything from plates and dishes to carpets and fabrics is imported from Morocco. According to the restaurant's website "interiors which resemble narrow Moroccan streets trick you into thinking that you've left the country without even noticing it." Hookahs are smoked in separate chill-out zones on the third floor; tobacco is brought in from United Arab Emirates and Egypt. If you want to "experience the whole Arabian fantasy" drop by on Thursday, Friday or Saturday night when the place is filled with belly dancers and live music.

Kal'yan from 800 to 1,900.

9. Speaking of Arabian fantasies, 1001 nights - The Tale of the East on Frunzenskaya Naberezhnaya is a lovely restaurant which offers everything required to have a good time, Arabian style. The restaurant harbors four separate halls, one of them floating on Moscow River. The selection and variety of meals is incredible. "Before coming here I had no idea there were 70 kinds of shashlik!" says Valeria, a tutor of Russian who frequently goes to The Tale of the East. Indeed, Russia's favorite Middle Eastern meal gets reinvented here, offering exclusive flavors not available anywhere else in Moscow. Entertainment here is varied: from magicians and illusionists to belly dancers and snake charmers. And as for the hookah, "it helps to absorb all the fun!"

Kal'yan - 900 rubles and higher.

10. Damas on Maroseika has an excellent slogan - "Damas is a restaurant for the most particular customer." Indeed, it offers a variety of Mediterranean and Arabian cuisine and four spacious rooms to satisfy every need. So have a quick bite at the pastel colored café, an exotic and delicious dinner in the hall designed by Moroccan craftsmen; but prepare to spend quite some time in the "kal'yan hall" which is the perfect place to relax, unwind, ponder and meditate.

Kal'yan - 900 rubles and higher. 

Katya Vinogradova

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