I grew up in the family where food was always loved and appreciated. There certainly wasn’t an abundance of choice at the time I was growing up in Moscow but in retrospect I think it was a good thing. Fairly often my extended family had get togethers, where grandparents, parents and children, as well as aunts and uncles and other relatives and friends were at the table, a variety of delicious courses was eaten with gusto, wine or other spirits were shared and tea and cakes were indulged in. Conversation flowed and I still lookback so fondly, missing those great occasions when people felt close to each other, even if they argued about a book, a personality or politics.
Both of my grandmothers were very able cooks and if I close my eyes tightly I still remember the colours and the flavours-my paternal grandmother’s juicy meat pie, a slice of which I tried to put in my mouth as soon as it came out of the oven, my maternal grandmother’s unreplicated fried potatoes and meat patties ( cutlets), my aunt’s ‘julienne mushrooms’ in cocote…. My mother was ( and still very much is ! ) a magician in the kitchen too, easily organising a meal at a drop of a hat if my father came home with his colleagues at short notice or if they had a party with friends, when 20 or 30 people easily crammed into our fairly modest by current standards apartment-the joy of those occasions, where songs and music filled the room, people danced and talked and felt so close to each other resonates deeply within me, especially now when people tend to concentrate on their own voes rather than hug their friends and relatives close.
Having lived in London for a long-time I have acquired different food tastes and my travels ( with family, friends or on my own ) also allowed me to expand my foodie horizons-I was very lucky, as my parents took me to Latvia and Lithuania ( and Georgia and Crimea on a couple of occasions ) from the age of two for the summer holidays and on most days we went out to dinner and I was allowed to sit with my parents and eat like a grown-up ( well, sort of ). My parents also often took me with them to have lunch at hotels National and Metropol in Moscow and I can still remember their incredible meat pastries ( pirozhki ) eaten together with a big and hearty bowl of chicken or beef bouillon.
Times have changed, there is abundance of choice and variety and I might find Russian cuisine too heavy on most occasions, but once in a while I get a surge of nostalgia about my childhood, happy times and shared meals and really crave delicious, home-made Russian food. Yes, my mother indulges me when she visits me or I make eyes at her when we go to Moscow, pleading for pelmeni, or pancakes or meat pie, specific egg omelette and ‘hedgehogs’, aka tefteli in Russian, which are similar to meatballs but are made with rice and cooked in a rich sauce with soured cream and tomato paste.
There are a few Russian restaurants in London but until recently none satisfied my craving for delicious and old-fashioned ( in the best sense of the word ) Russian cuisine. And then I started hearing rumblings that Mari Vanna, was coming to town. Mari Vanna, according to Russian folk tales, invited guests into her home and fed them simple but delicious home-made, traditional Russian dishes. There is one restaurant in Moscow, another in St. Petersburg and one was opened in New York-why not London I was grumbling, when my Russian or NY friends told me about their fun dinners there. I sulked; time passed and Russians only opened Japanese or Italian or Chinese restaurants in London, while the odd Russian one was way below the par, in terms of both food and service.
Finally, earlier this year one of my girlfriends told me that there was a ‘soft opening’ of Mari Vanna but her initial reaction was mixed, both in terms of food and service. Friends opinions do matter but you can’t rely on someone to form your own judgement, can you? So, I roped my best friend in for company and off we went to explore the possibilities.
Located in Knightsbridge, almost across from Mr. Chow and a stone’s throw from Hyde Park, Harvey Nichols and al, this quaint and very cosy restaurant is welcoming guests. With abundant flower pots framing an old bicycle tied to the railings, you go up the steps towards the front door, where old-fashioned door bells are dotted around it. As soon as you open the door and walk in, time rolls back, as if you were transported back to Russia in the 60s and 70s.
Smiling and sweet reception girls welcome you in, while you look around in wonder- at the walls decorated with old newspapers, wallpaper, mirrors; at the quaint objects like old framed photoes and postcards, porcelaine figurines, crocheted place mats, enamel jars, which many Russians miss now, yet were too quick to throw away not so long ago. The whole decor ( dreamed up by Megre Interiors ) makes my eyes glisten and the heart skip a beat every time I go to Mari Vanna.
The main dining room is located at ground floor, while downstairs you have a private dining room, a place to have tea with a laid-back sitting area where adults can relax and kids can be entertained and watch Russian cartoons, ranging from the old classics like 38 parrots to the current ones, like Masha and the Bear (Sunday is a particularly good day to go to the restaurant with the kids but staff welcomes kids during the day too, smiling and bringing them paper and crayons for entertainment. After all, ‘a grandmother will never turn a child away, will she’ ?). The whole place feels more like a cosy family home, rather than a restaurant. You have guest DJs on Fridays and Saturdays, film screenings, magician shows, acoustic guitar and wonderfully mellow Russian romance songs that are sung ‘live’ on certain says, so you have a collective energy vibe, which really will re-adjust your expectations and opinion of the Russians, hopefully giving way to good Russian energy.
Mari Vanna is co-owned by Russian entrepreneurs Vadim Lapin & Dmitry Sergeyev, founders of a well-known and popular in Russia Ginza Project group. They combined their efforts in London with the man about town Luca Del Bono, who has a wide-reaching experience in hospitality business and is a very well-known personality on the social circuit in Europe and the UK.
During my first few visits in the spring the food and the wait time were variable, pirozhki at times were a little burnt at the bottom and staff seemed a little hesitant when it came to explaining certain dishes on the menu, but what I found refreshing and endearing was that the service was sweet and attentive. On one occasion I called to ask whether I needed to book a table, as I was coming with a girlfriend and the kids and was told, no, you don’t need a reservation- only to be told exactly the opposite when we actually came in. Yes, we had to wait ten minutes or so to be seated but the food was great and kids loved it. We ordered cranberry morse ( it is made daily on the premises and you can also try one made from fresh raspberries, which is just so delicious I actually sometimes pop into the restaurant just to drink a carafe of it ). My best friend’s kids ( as well as my own ) absolutely loved it and kept on empting their glasses much to our delight. I also highly recommend to try kvass, which really reminds me of my childhood, when you had to queue for it with an enamle bidon ( like a big jar with a lid and a metalic carrier handle ) and then drank it greedily, with some of it running down your face ( it is best drunk in spring and summer, if you want to be guided by Russian traditions, as it quenches the thirst really well in the warm months ).
The menu is divided into the following sections:
–Cold Starters and Salads ( try ‘Kholodetz’, a cold dish of jellied veal and chicken meat which is served with horseradish and mustard-it’s a ‘must’ dish if you are nursing a bit of a hangover from the day before; another Russian favourite, a salad called ‘Vinegret’ which is a combination of carrots, beetroot, pickled cucumbers and baked potatoes, ‘dressed’ with sunflower oil-my mother, who is a whizz with this recipe said this one was just ok in her opinion; salad ‘Olivier’ which is always served on New Year’s night and is in itself a staff of Russian folklore and humour-I have known occasions when people fell asleep with their faces in it during festivities; or ‘Herring in shuba-coat’, which is a layered salad of salted herring, potatoes and beetroot dressed with light mayonnaise ).
–Hot Starters ( try Pirogi which are small and hand-made and are a perfect accompaniment to the bowl ( or tarelka, in Russian )plate of bouillon on a cold day-they are made with meat, cabbage & eggs or seabass; Megrelian Hachapuri, a dish which has its origins in Georgia. It is a freshly baked, pitta like bread staffed with gooey Suluguni cheese, slightly salted and ever so good; or Pancakes that are served with sour cream, egg, red onions, red or osetra caviar or smoked salmon )
–Pickles and Preserves ( try marinated mushrooms or a Russian version of sauerkraut-either goes beautifully with a shot or two of vodka and you can try flavoured varieties with horseradish, chilli & honey or cucumber & dill )
–Soups ( ‘Ukha’, a Russian fish soup, which has a very rich flavour and is full of vitamins and goodness or you can go for another Russian favourite, which has Ukrainian roots, called ‘Borsch’. It is a beef and beetroot soup served with pampushka and soured cream and it really warms you up during cold and gloomy months ).
-Main Dishes ( try Siberian Pelmeni, which are made with beef and pork and are served with butter and sour cream, or chicken fritters with mashed potatoes and salted cucumbers-a great dish to introduce children to Russian cuisine; ‘Golubtzi’ -cabbage leaves stuffed with rice, pork and veal or ‘Beef stroganoff’ which is served with buckwheat and wild mushrooms-this is such a perfect and tender dish, it makes me think of cold winter evenings when I was a child, living in Moscow and a plate of this eaten for dinner made me feel sated, warm and happy; or try the seasonal offering of ‘Duck breast with cowberry sauce’ ).
–Side dishes ( depending on your tastes try buckwheat with mushrooms and onions, mashed potatoes, boiled potatoes sprinkled with dill and aromatic flavoured dressing, or fried potatoes with wild mushrooms-my maternal grandmother used to make this dish and to this day, no matter how good it is, I think of my grandmother’s recipe every time I eat fried potatoes-she must have sprinkled something magical over it. Or the way my father used to make it for us on special occasions, when my brother and I were children and my mum was late, having been editing newspapers articles in the office ).
–Desserts ( now, let me be honest here-this is my favourite section. The pastry lady who came from Russia and makes all the pastries in Mari Vanna’s kitchen is amazing and the cakes that she creates are probably one of the best, if not the best in town. Women in my family made great cakes and I miss the taste of my childhood, when I had tea-time with ‘day and night’ cake or waffles with whipped cream and strawberries or ‘Ukrainian’ tort that my mother made. My mother-in-law makes the most delicious Napoleon cake and every time I go to Moscow I ask her to make it for me. Well, the pastry lady chef in Mari Vanna is certainly a cooking professional to be reckoned with, as her Napoleon is a masterpiece of deliciousness! Alternatively, there is Honey cake, Sweet dumplings with morello cherries or Bird’s nest cake ( a triumph of chocolate outer shell and soft and tender inside ). Current autumn treat on Mari Vanna’s menu is baked apples with honey and raisins-whatever you try, you will savour every spoonful and I bet you will be coming back for more ).
Going to Mari Vanna for a cup of tea and cake feels truly indulgent and I do that when I need a bit of cheering up-my approach is to eat a slice of outstanding cake on occasion rather than eat mediocre offerings that all of us are likely to grab during a lunch break. Those desserts are truly indulgent and rich, like a dessert should be like-home-made with fresh ingredients and love. If you like drinking tea, try the ones on the menu, buckthorn berry tea gets my vote to shift cold and viruses that are ripe at the moment!
The team who works at Mari Vanna is international, some are Russian and some aren’t but everyone is fairly young and enthusiastic and it makes all the difference ( the waiters have an easy-going camaraderie mixed with a little bit of flirting that creates a lovely, theatre like atmosphere ). The management seems to find the right people that manage to create a cosy, family like atmosphere that makes you exhale and relax as soon as you come through the door-and believe me, I don’t say that lightly, especially when it comes to Russian owned restaurants in London.
You sit in the chair, look around, listen to the Russian music that is laced with both joy and melancholy, you dream of things past and look into the future. I certainly feel nostalgic when I go to Mari Vanna and this is the best compliment, really-they created something current and fun, that is unique to London, which is over saturated with restaurants and Russians, and yet it is sweet and welcoming and it feels like your grandmother’s home, with no dust, just precious pieces and nostalgia that makes you smile, rather than feel sad.
Mari Vanna, Wellington Court, 116 Knightsbridge, London SW1x 7PJ tel. 0207 225 3122
open daily, from midday to midnight, for lunch, tea time and dinner