A Russian restaurant? What gag do you want to start with? Something about salt mines? The quantity of beetroot? The one about the queues to get in? Russian cuisine may not be the stuff romantic dreams are made of – Lady & The Tramp shared spaghetti and meatballs rather than borsch and pirogi for very good reasons – but, like all good cuisines (including our own), it’s fine comfort eating/fuel for the working classes. In some locations such carb-heavy fare is no doubt stodge of the highest order but writing an entire cuisine off on that basis is a bit like having a Gregg’s steak bake and deciding that’s all you need to know about the UK’s restaurant scene.Besides, as you’d expect from the Knightsbridge postcode, Mari Vanna adds a certain sophistication to proceedings.
Russian hospitality means you’ll still leave feeling capable of pulling a 12 hour shift in a saltmine although the amount of flavoured vodkas consumed – and surprisingly palatable Russian wines – also means you probably shouldn’t operate heavy machinery for at least a couple of days. Mari Vanna, the person, doesn’t actually exist. As the menu explains, she’s a mythical St. Petersburg character who’d feed all comers traditional Russian fare on the finest china and linens. The restaurant designers have certainly embraced that concept with an interior that’s part dacha, part antique shop. Nick nacks, bric-a-brac and “family” photos fill every candlelit shelf: it’s like Miss Haversham’s “before” photo. It’s ersatz but somehow utterly charming, like the home of the Russian grandmother you never knew you had. And, in her absence, the staff take it upon themselves to feed you to the sort of levels that requires a fireside nap before you broach the London transport.
Things start lightly(ish) with Russian salads that are surprisingly vibrant, although any health benefits are rapidly unravelled by the basket of breads, oladushki – courgette pancakes – with salted salmon and soured cream, blinis with more salmon (the budget didn’t quite run to the Oscietra) and a selection of deceptively small pirogi, Russian pastries stuffed with beef and pork, cabbage and egg (sorry stomach) and, best of all, sea bass. And, like you would with your grandmother fussing over you, you find yourself eating it all and still asking for more.
And, unlike your grandmother (probably), having more brought to you accompanied by glass after glass of flavoured vodkas, including (painful) horseradish, (refreshing) dill and cucumber and (I-could-drink-quite-dangerous-amounts-of-this) honeycomb varieties.Main courses maintain the comfort eating/find-me-an-armchair theme although not quite as successfully as the starters. Beef Stroganoff is a rich, gamey interpretation that leaves us a little underwhelmed, while chicken fritters with mash and salted cucumbers is pleasing but the sort of thing you might have knocked up late one night in student days. If they lack finesse though, the final course has it in spades. Even with the encouragement of our surrogate grandmother waiter, we can only manage a shared dessert and that’s after a short break during which an excellent magician performs tableside.
But what a dessert. The menu calls it Honey Cake. The brief description describes it as “seven layers of tender pastry soaked in honey”. We’d call it “the straw that broke the camel’s back” but even so it’s all we can do to stop ourselves licking the plate clean. Coffee is strong and necessary, and we attempt to give ourselves some digesting time with some great people watching.As you can imagine, given the target audience – why good evening Mr Oligarch – this is fine sport, from the woman who appears to be eating with her bodyguard to the six foot plus Louboutin-clad beauties who arrive as we’re leaving, via gossiping girls, family gatherings and a table of vodka-fuelled international wheeling and dealing. You could easily pick holes in the Mari Vanna experience but it’s almost churlish to do so, like taking pot shots at your grandmother’s cooking: what it may lack in certain dishes it makes up for in atmosphere and warmth. Cherry pick from the starters and desserts – or take advantage of the set lunch deals – and you’ll no doubt find yourself succumbing to its manifold charms as well.
London SW1X 7PJ