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Art & Culture / The Hunger

Mari Vanna's Russian decadence

In this column, Ananda Pellerin and Neil Wissink uncover the secret pleasures of the gastronome

A Russian tea cosy
A Russian tea cosy Photography by Neil Wissink

Legend has it that Russian hostess Mari Vanna welcomed visitors to her St Petersburg home, kept them fed, and encouraged them to return whenever they wished...

Legend has it that Russian hostess Mari Vanna welcomed visitors to her St Petersburg home, kept them fed, and encouraged them to return whenever they wished. The London outpost of this restaurant named in her honour, which also has branches in New York, Moscow and St Petersburg, is determined to show a similar largesse.

Despite its location on a busy road in Knightsbridge, the moment you walk through the front doors of Mari Vanna you’re transported back to a glorious, if somewhat mythical, Russian past. Rose, deep red, gold and cream dominate the décor, with lace doilies, lamps draped with gypsy scarves, sepia-print photographs and more tchotchkes than you can shake a finger at lining the shelves.

All this grandeur aside, an evening at Mari Vanna is a relaxed and pleasant affair; much like visiting the eccentric Russian aunt you never had (or perhaps do?) for a late Sunday lunch, then sipping vodka in her front room as a great clock ticks away in the day’s dying light.

The best dishes are uncomplicated, traditional fare. The borsch, a classic beef and beetroot soup, is homemade and warming without being too heavy. While the beef stroganoff, served with buckwheat kasha and wild mushrooms, is hearty and satisfying – the standout dish of the evening. That is until we have the honey cake for dessert, a wonderfully moist yet textured affair.

"The moment you walk through the front doors of Mari Vanna you’re transported back to a glorious, if somewhat mythical, Russian past"

A must-have is the home-spiced vodka – we love the horseradish and fennel varieties – which is served excitedly by our waiter, who eagerly tells us about the staff’s recent experiments in vodka enhancement. After our meal we retire to the downstairs lounge, which has a bohemian feel with its plenitude of scatter cushions and chandelier candleholders. And while the Mari Vanna menu is a bit on the pricey side—for what is basically Russian peasant food – it’s worth a visit to soak up the atmosphere, and to watch the constant stream of young, well-heeled Russians who glide through the dining room, reveling in the richness of it all.

Text by Ananda Pellerin

Neil and Ananda visited Mari Vanna on Monday April 16 at 7:30pm.

Ananda Pellerin is a London-based writer and editor, and Neil Wissink is a visual artist also based in London. More from The Hunger here, and contact The Hunger here.

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