Mari Vanna, a Russian restaurant with subsidiaries in Moscow, St. Petersburg and New York, has recently opened a new outpost in – who would have guessed – the Little Russia of London, Knightsbridge. Â I naturally assumed it would be an overpriced pretentious place for noveau-riche Russians (well, this might have been covered with Novikov) and was pleasantly surprised to read a variety of good reviews (The Skinny Bib, John LancasterÂ at the GuardianÂ ).
I can add another positive report as my recent visit to Mari VannaÂ was a pleasant one. Â The food was, although decent, certainly not world-changing, but the atmosphere! Â I have not seen a more charming restaurant in a long time; Â and not that many attractive slender well-dressed ladies, I felt a bit out-of-place in my (very lovely) H&M outfit to be honest. Â Mari Vanna should feel posh and pretentious,Â particularlyÂ with its location just next to the most expensive London housing development One Hyde Park (where you can pick up a flat there for 15 million pounds) but somehow it just makes you want to move in (Mari Vanna that is, not One Hyde Park).
We were led down a small staircase into the lower ground floor which was just as cute as the entry hallway. Â You would not for all the money in the world want to have Mari Vanna’sÂ bric-Ã -bracÂ in your living space, but for a couple of hours during dinner, it does make you feel like in your imaginary Russian grandmother’s cosy house. Â Is it kitsch? Â You bet it is, but it is also fun and different.
Mari VannaÂ is, hardly surprising considering the area, rather pricey for what is offered. Â I have to point out though, that the complimentary Russian snack thing (picture below) is rather addictive and the bread basket served with garlic/herb butter consisted of a variety of delicious brown breads. Â I wonder where they get their bread from, I would eat it all day every day. Â I particularly liked the almost black one tastingÂ distinctlyÂ of fennel and caraway seeds.
If you are on a budget, just eat the bread and share a few of the starters (portions are very generous) which will give you a similar but certainly cheaper experience.
The menu is huge and if you don’t know anything about Russian food (like myself who has eaten Russian maybe 3 times in my life) it’s a bit confusing. Â Thank god I had a Russian speaker and Russian expert with me who did all the ordering. Â He decided I would not like Russian salads (he was probably right about this one as I can’t standÂ mayonnaise) so we gave these a miss. Â The Russian salads have been positively remarked on in other reviews, so might be worth trying if you don’t mind mayo.
The Pirogi (we sampled the cabbage/egg as well as the beef / pork option) for 3 pounds each reminded me of the Chinese buns that are part of every dim sum menu. Â Unexpectedly, the cabbage one stole the show. Â Its soft and fluffy exterior was filled with lovely and very tasty shredded cabbage (and there I would have thought that cabbage and lovely exclude each other). Â The pork/beef variety was a bit dry and not terribly exciting.
Not very exciting either was the alternative to mayonnaise,Â Home Style Vegetable Salad (9). Â Some green leaves, a couple of pieces of flavourless tomatoes and far too much red peppers were sprinkled with tasteless seeds. Â The marinade was too sour and I regretted spending 9 pounds on this dish of which I would have got a better version of at the Pret around the corner.
The next starter impressively showed the closeness of Russia to the Middle East. Â Aubergine Caviar (8), again served with gorgeous toasted brown bread, was just another version of baba ganoush. Â It unfortunately lacked the smoked flavour of its Persian counterpart and was, even though nice, overall a bit dull.
I loved Mari Vanna’s Blinis with salmon (17). Â All blinis I had thus far reminded me of small American pancakes, Mari Vanna on the contrary served blinis that looked and tasted exactly like Austrian crepes (Palatschinken) and show the influence of Austrian cuisine on Russia (or is it the other way around??). Â Served with sour cream, subtly smoked salmon and freshly grated horseradish, I could have eaten a whole bunch of them. Â A shame that the horseradish was so mild, I would have wanted a little eye-watering kick.
We admittedly overdid it a bit with the starters andÂ thereforeÂ we ordered only one main course. Â Siberian Pelmeni (13) might not be the most sophisticated plate of food on the planet but they are comfort food at its very best. Â Little boiled dumplings filled with minced beef and pork (there is also a fish/seafood version available) were sitting snugly in a terracotta pot and eaten with a lot of sour cream they were just perfect for our wintery summer.
Fried Potatoes with Girolle Mushrooms (6) which I was told are very typically Russian were boring and greasy, consequently a complete waste of stomach space that could have been used to try other intriguing dishes on the menu.
Mari VannaÂ is too expensive for food that looks like it’s cooked by the above mentioned babushka and not everything is spot on. Â Did I like it? Â Oh yes I did.
I could just hang out at Mari VannaÂ Â (they are open in the afternoons for cake and the honey cake comes highly recommended) surrounded by Russian dolls, strange figurines, heavy brocade curtains, and old-fashioned sparkly chandeliers sipping tea or vodka and watch beautiful people, while training myself to not feel intimidated by ladies whose outfit costs more than I earn in a month… or year if you count the earrings.
- Food: 6.5/10
- Ambiance: 10/10
- Service: 8/10
- Value for Money: 5/10
- Chances of Returning: 25%
- Verdict: The pinnacle of comfort food in the cutest restaurant I have seen in a long time.