This Russian restaurant, Mari Vanna, sits within a fancy-schmancy clutter of London – a few skips away from Harrods, along the street of Mandarin Oriental, next to the One Hyde Park and opposite of the Bulgari Hotel – but all of the lights of these glitzy spots dimmed when we stepped into the relatively unassuming Russian house.
Every nook and cranny of the restaurant was a focal point itself. The curtains were beautiful bobbin lace joined by delicate crochet hooks, the wallpaper was a pale cerulean blue and the tables and the chairs were a loose collection of antique furniture – some padded, some upholstered, no two tables were the same. The cleaned crystal cuts of the chandelier and the rich colourful petals of the flowers were two sly things that would easily fool one to believe that an old Russian family still live there, clinging onto the legacy of the Soviet Union.
There was the rare empty space between the slightly shabby windowpanes, and there was the even rarer empty space between the over-mantle mirror and bookshelves filled with Russian literature and tea sets and rows of babushka dolls. Walls were laden with assorted frames, reminiscing about the once splendid characters, now in rigid portraits of black and white. They were mysterious guardians that would catch curious eyes and unfold a string of stories that you would only keep between you and them.
But all has passed.
Mari Vanna was a mere reinstatement of a poignant and very bewitching history.
^ The one on the right is a Russian self-boiler commonly used to make tea. Isn’t it so exquisite?
Now, onto the food.
To start, we had a tray of bread that came with the usual pot of butter and the unusual sprig of spring onion – common in a Russian meal. Then, an aubergine spread with rye bread and “herring under a coat” – a layer of diced salted herring covered by many thin layers of boiled potatoes, carrots, onions and beetroot. I know that the description doesn’t sound tempting but trust me, after a spoonful, you will be on Google looking for its recipe.
(I’m sorry I can’t locate or tell you all of the names of these dishes here in Russian. My attempts are a dead duck as far as this language is concerned. Vodka is the only Russian word I know best.)
Soon after my photo-snapping ritual, we all dug in like hungry wolves.
And made a toast to the (finally) end of my photo-snapping ritual.
On a sweltering hot British summer day like this, we all opted for the cool refreshing drinks. The red ones were raspberry “Mors”, a type of fermented fruit juice with a negligible amount of alcohol. It’s sweet and slightly sour. The black ones were more interesting. It’s “Kvas”, a refreshing carbonated drinks made from black bread and tasted like prune juice.
We later ordered another one (below), called “Tarhun”. I’ll let Wikipedia do the explaining, it is a ” carbonated soft drinkthat is flavoured with tarragon or woodruff and traditionally dyed green“.
For main, we had dumplings (“Vareniki”) and stuffed cabbage. (“Golubtsy”) – two Russian classics.
^ My traditional dumplings stuffed with vegetables, topped with caramelised onions and bits of bacon. Below is Huw’s squid ink dumpling stuffed with meat.
Do not overestimate the size of this dish and over-order. Small as it may be, it’s able to make you feel like you’ve reached your top limits in no time. And of course, same theory applies to small size girls.
To end the meal, Q ordered a Russian Napoleon cake and opportunely cracked the eye-rolling joke that he was eating Napoleon.
I, on the other hand, had my usual shot of espresso and we were served with some Russian biscuits and sweets.
^…all of which I sneakily pocketed and brought home. Too cute to resist!
The surprise of Mari Vanna didn’t end here. At the hallway leading up to the gents and ladies was another view to behold.
I thought these were all that I could marvel at until I pushed open the ladies’ room.
A quick browse at their website revealed that they started in St Petersburg and have branches in New York, LA and Washington. A darling of the press, they were featured in many magazines and even won Best New Design Time Out Award.
I say, do give this eclectic Russian restaurant a visit the next time you are in Knightsbridge. Forget about the shiny food hall in Harrods. And remember not to over-order on those small dumplings.
With love x