Russian home-cooking has been smartened up at Knightsbridge’s enchantingly kitsch outpost of Mari Vanna.
Step over the threshold and you’re transported straight into to the adorably cluttered and chintzy home of the fictional Mari Vanna – she has three others in St Petersburg, Moscow and New York, with more on the way. Lacy lamps dangle from the ceiling, large painted dressers are stacked with ornate platters, and cake stands are loaded with traditional sweets. Shelves around the sides of the room are crammed with pug ornaments, china cockerels and faded black-and-white photos. When the food arrives, it’s served on miss-matched floral china with the napkins stuffed inside Russian dolls.
The restaurant is subdued and homely at 7pm, but by 9pm there’s a raucous queue snaking out of the door. Men might be footing the bill here, but the girls definitely run the roost: a team of impossibly glamorous hostesses keep patrons in order and deftly carry plates in four-inch heels. Bar a few older couples who’re welcomed like old friends, the diners are beautiful women and the men who pay for their Cartier bracelets and expensive-looking blow-drys. This is Knightsbridge after all, so expect almost solely Russian ex-pats. Don’t let that put you off, though, as the charming staff are genuinely delighted to explain the half-Cyrillic menu to any fresh faces.
If your knowledge of Russian cooking isn’t that extensive, you’ll be pleased to know that you’ll recognise classics like beef stroganoff, pierogi and borscht. The mains (£11–£28) are quite traditional, but the menu is pretty huge and there’s something for everyone in the tempting array of hot and cold starters (£7–£17, excluding caviar). There are also plenty of lighter options – as you’re earnestly informed – ‘for the ladies’. It’s good, traditional food, but no culinary shake-up. That’s not really the point.
Start with the megrelian hachapuri, a plate-sized Georgian 'bread pie'. Breaking the round, crispy shell releases a gooey ooze of tangy suluguni cheese; it’s a bit much for two, let alone one. A heavily spiced aubergine caviar served with toasted rye bread is more unusual, and a touch more sophisticated. The standout dish, however, is the oladushki with salted salmon (Roman Abramovich’s favourite, apparently). These warm courgette pancakes are unexpectedly delicate and work wonderfully with the oily salmon and cool sour cream. Make sure you try them.
Those a little wary of offal and dumplings might want to stick with something like the beef stroganoff for their main. This classic, creamy dish is de-Anglicised with an earthy buckwheat kasha (a little bit like pearl barley) that’s made with some pretty potent stock. The veal with caramelised onion mash is much more what you might expect from Russian home-cooking. It’s a simple, hearty plate of food with soft veal patties, a huge pile of creamy mash and pickled cucumbers on the side.
Puddings are gorgeously rich, so continue the Russian tradition and share. Try the light but super-sweet layered honey cake (£9) with the milky homemade ice-cream (£8).
The highlight of the drinks list is the Georgian wine (this small state in the Caucasus claims to be the world’s oldest wine-growing region). The award-winning Tbilvino Tsinandali (£11.50 a glass) is an oak-matured and reasonably full-bodied white that’s slightly lacking fruit, while the red Satrapezo Saperavi (£15 a glass) is much meatier, with good tannic structure and lots of blackberries and spice. The latter is partly fermented in traditional Georgian kvevri vessels buried in the ground. Oddly, different wines are available by the bottle, starting around a reasonable £23 and going steadily upwards from there. Of course, there’s also a glut of vodka and some lovely fresh juices.
The Last Word
Build up an appetite, dig out your Rolex and head over to Mari Vanna for a rollicking Russian knees-up.