I’ve just come back from Mari Vanna, a Russian restaurant in Knightsbridge, where doilies, chandeliers, pickled jars and flower wallpaper rule. “It hasn’t actually opened yet”, one of our snazzy Eastern European waitresses told us, “this is a soft launch for family and friends”.
So how did I end up there? I’m neither friends nor family, and I’m definitely not Russian. Anna, who was my fabulous dinner date, is half Polish, but that is not Slavic enough. I had read about Mari Vanna from one of the endless newsletters I’m being sent on a daily basis, and Anna had seen it as her aunt owns the nail salon next to it. There are already outposts of Mari Vanna in New York, Moscow and St Petersburg and now we’ve been blessed with this take on an over-the-top traditional Russian restaurant.
I had never eaten Russian food before, unless you count a handful of blinis and sad pirogis from the school canteen. It was a long time ago I was a cuisine virgin and suddenly, beef stroganoff seemed terribly exciting.
In fact, I haven’t been so excited for a dinner in a very long time. May it be the tsars, the hockey teams and the cultural heritage, Russia has always been a fascination of mine.
The food is stodgy, let’s set it straight. A salad layered with mayonnaise, herring and beetroot, pirogis filled with mince pork and beef, chicken cutlets and potato mash, courgette pancakes with smoked salmon and a sour cream cake with strawberries did not leave me light as a feather. I did however, leave me in a state of blissful food coma. We were offered a complimentary shot of Russian Standard vodka to clear our palate before the meal began, I don’t know about digestion, but the vodka at least made conversation flow effortlessly.
Our waitress was a lovely as the food. Enthusiastic and helpful, she patiently guided me through the menu as I debated what to order and goodness, was her advice spot on. Light Japanese food has its perks, but this, this is different. How nice it is to taste something that feels like it has been cooked at someone’s house, and not in a clinical restaurant kitchen. You just imagine a grandma standing in the Mari Vanna kitchen barking out orders in Cyrillic, while dishing out the next quality borscht.
I appreciate that Mari Vanna’s food isn’t for everyone, but for someone who eats an awful lot of Mediterranean food, this provided a welcome break. The ambience won my praise too. I liked the restaurant even before the pirogis were put in front of me, which I know is slightly wrong. I can’t help but salute the dimmer switch and the knickknacks filling up the space to the brim. Even the loos hadn’t been spared the extreme Russian makeover.
While there might have been oligarchs dining next to me, this place isn’t bling. It’s fun, easy and tasty – and there are few of those places in Knightsbridge. To Mari Vanna I have only one other thing to say, count me as a distant relative and I’ll keep coming back as a quality controller before il grande launch. Not that you need it.
Images are from Mari Vanna New York, Moscow and St. Petersburg and belong to Mari Vanna. In my opinion, the London restaurant win the design battle.