I am not a massive fan of Russian food, but I completely adored Mari Vanna, the ultimate Russian restaurant. Squeezed in amongst the towering glass apartments and designer outlets of Knightbridge, this crazy eatery is one of a kind.
This is the London addition to an existing Russian chain, welcomed to England after the success of the New York branch. We were instantly won over by the overwhelming collection of trinkets and memorabilia – clutter occupies even the stairs outside the venue. Mari Vanna, named after a fictional grandmother, hopes to make you feel at home, tucking you in amongst the darling ornaments. In an area populated by smart minimalist restaurants, this indulgent decoration is a lot of fun.
With every glance you spot a new detail, a china hen, an intriguing embroidered picture, a little trinket. It is a beautifully dreamy place, imaginative and thoughtful in every way, even the toilets are mad… filled with antique mirrors and photographs adorning the walls and a Russian story tape playing.
Sweet, dense rye bread arrived to kick off the feast, prettily presented with radishes, it tasted just as good as it looked. We happily munched as we soaked up the atmosphere and listened to the traditional lilting melodies from a wandering musician.
All alcohol is expensive, it is worth trying the vodka rather than wine. Cocktails are hit and miss, we tried the delicious fruity Oblepiha’s Dream (a passionfruit and vodka based short drink) and the very odd Sex on the Birch (gin, homemade cucumber & dill vodka, birch juice and fresh cucumber) this was an ominous and bitter clear liquid which made me wince at every sip.
The food is pricey, surprisingly so, considering the vintage cosy feel to the place, but considering the location, it sort of makes sense. The menu is traditional and some of what is on offer is definitely an ‘acquired’ taste, for native Russians reminiscing, I suspect. We opted for a mix of adventurous and ordinary recipes and delved into our tableful of delicacies. Starters were large: homemade vegetable salad was fresh and crunchy, aubergine caviar – a very flavoursome mush and courgette pancakes – moreish and salty. Pirogi (traditional Russian pastries) filled with beef and pork were scrumptious; warm and crumbly pastry filled with perfectly seasoned minced meat.
Mains were more familiar to me: Beef Stroganoff is a creamy classic which the UK is fond of recreating. My friend really enjoyed this authentic rendition with tender strips of beef, and a flavoursome, luxuriously smooth sauce. The dish was served with lovely buckwheat enhanced with wild mushrooms. My Baked Chicken with herbs is apparently a classic dish from the Caucasus Mountains, it was a simple but delicious dish, with a particularly nice spicy marinade; rich mashed potato was the ideal accompaniment.
The desserts (cakes and pastries), seem to be made predominantly from cream. We tried Honey Cake (thin layers of ultra-sweet sponge and cream) – our waiter insisted this was the best and it was good, but the Sour Cream Cake was even better, with utterly divine soft sponge, indulgent creamy fluffiness and topped with plump ripe berries.
Full marks for personality, charm and atmosphere. Russian food is a rarity in London, Mari Vanna ensure you will have a night to remember.
More information here.