116 Knightsbridge, London SW1 (020 7225 3122). Meal for two, including vodka and service £150
Spare a thought for the poor soul tasked with dusting the tchotchkes that cram the shelves of Mari Vanna in Knightsbridge. It's a Forth Road Bridge painting job, that. The place is crammed with knick-knacks and crockery, with white-painted farmhouse dressers and chandeliers. There are vintage photographs of the Russian family you never knew you had and partitions of artfully distressed wood in the loos, as if you're going for a slash in the outhouse of a tumbledown dacha you never knew you owned. It is over the top, shameless and curiously effective. Mari Vanna, the branch of a small chain with outposts in Moscow, St Petersburg and New York, bellows "I'm charming" at you until you surrender. Which, assuming you can swallow the prices, is what you do.
By the time I went it had been running for more than seven weeks, but still claimed to be on a soft opening, possibly the longest in London restaurant history. And if these are the soft opening prices, God help us if they crank it up. Humble starters are near a tenner or more, mains double that. On the menu it said: "We appreciate your understanding and patience as we work towards perfecting our menu, service and atmosphere," which feels like getting an apology in first. Not that there's much to apologise for. Mari Vanna, named after a fictional hostess, is what it is: a kitsch and loving take on the culinary traditions of Russia.
These, it should be said, are an acquired taste. It is, depending on your point of view, either the very essence of homely, cupboard-love cooking, or a combination of death-by-carbs and leftovers. The cult of the Russian salad has always baffled me. How cold cooked vegetables, here with the addition of cubes of sausage, all bound in mayo has managed to attain the status of classic is beyond me. Russian salad is what happens when it's late, the fridge is almost empty and you are very, very drunk. Here, it's done about as well as it can be done, the ingredients still having bite rather than disintegrating unto slurry.
Far better is a layered salad of salted herring, beetroot and potatoes. We order a bowl of pickles, which are big chunks of vinegar-cured crunchy things, and a couple of their pirogi, the classic bronze-burnished filled pastries. The minced beef and pork is the sort of thing that will see you through a snowed-in month. The more delicate sea-bass version will merely get you through a weekend.
For the main courses we stick to the classics. We have a dish of pelmeni. The silky little meat-stuffed dumplings come with a cooling bowl of soured cream and are completely compelling. We have golubtzi, the cabbage leaves stuffed with a big, butch mix of pork, veal and rice. At Mari Vanna everything is stuffed, including the diners. There may be friendly young Russian waiters who look like they work out a lot, but really you're being fed by a grandmother who doesn't understand the words "enough already". At Mari Vanna it doesn't matter what month it is. Winter is coming. Winter is always coming. So eat.
And drink, of course. There are many vodkas, sold by the 5cl shot at outrageous prices. So we slug Russian Standard vodka and chilli vodka and feel gravity take hold.
It says much for the food that it is the fabulous pastries, made of cream, sponge, cream, pastry and cream which bring lightness to the meal. The Napoleon is layers of puff pastry with heavily whipped cream, crusted with toasted almonds. The honey cake is a dozen thin layers of dark sponge with more cream and a slick of honeycomb. At which point your pancreas nails an "I quit" note to your small intestine, and curls up to die. Mari Vanna is completely bonkers, but in a sweet way. It really is charming. Now please do excuse me. I need to go for a lie down.
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