Last week, I had the opportunity to have dinner at Mari Vanna, a traditional Russian restaurant on E. 20th Street in Manhattan. It was my first “dine-around” dinner with the New York Women’s Culinary Alliance, and the date also happened to be my birthday. So, it was a nice way to celebrate.
Ambiance is part of any great dining experience, even if it’s non-ambiance, as in the case of some mom-and-pop places where the food is the focal point. The word “ambiance” really doesn’t even fit Mari Vanna. They’ve created a sense of place. A world, in fact.
Upon entering Mari Vanna, you feel like you are entering a turn-of-the-19th-century shop/café, with its trinkets and small café tables. The furniture is mostly (I think) baroque and reminiscent of an Old World country home. There was one woman at our table who happened to be Russian (she’d been born in Moscow but moved here when she was 7) and she described the restaurant as “like going to grandma’s house.” Indeed, a china cabinet was jammed with plates, baking dishes, gravy boats, candy dishes, soup bowls, and an assortment of other culinary vessels and utensils. It was so much like many a grandma’s kitchen.
The layout of the place was interesting, too. The main dining room was separated from the kitchen by windows, which made it seem as if beyond those windows was a garden. You can easily peek in and watch the staff cooking your meal.
There was also kitsch. Along the buffet table, and throughout the place, there were examples of Russian folk art: dolls, toys, and colorfully painted bric-a-brack. It brought a sense of charm to a room that might otherwise seem a bit stuffy. I loved the bathrooms! With its old-school pump faucets and wall-mounted toilet tanks with the chain, you really felt as if you’d stepped into another world…except for the fact that there is graffiti all over—and I do mean ALL OVER—the walls and doors. This is part of the décor and I think they actually encourage guests to scribble their own personal messages. When you exit the bathrooms, there’s an old wall-mounted rotary phone, above which is an old Stalin-era military propaganda poster. I had no idea what it said, but it did give you a sense of the atmosphere in which Russians lived in that era.
I suppose I should talk about the food. The menu consists of traditional Russian dishes, from blini with caviar to cured herring and Siberian pelmini. However, for our group, the chef and one of the NYWCA women worked on a creating a special menu. We had:
Cocktails (choice of one)
Signature vodka shot or signature martini
Salo Plate (Assortment of salt-cured pork fatback)
Meat Plate (Assortment of cured meats and charcuterie)
Soleniya (housemade picked vegetables)
Blini with Red Caviar
Smetannik (signature dessert with strawberries and cream)
All are classic Russian dishes. The dilly bread, as well as the raisin bread and pickles, was a tasty starter. The Olivier (potatoes, Russian sausage, and sage mayo) is similar to American potato salad, in that it is made with mayo, but it has a different mixture of elements (sausage, peas, and, in this case, halved quail eggs). The salad has a Hollywood folktale attached to it. Legend has it that it was named for the actor Sir Lawrence Olivier. In truth, it was named for its creator, a Belgian chef named Lucien Olivier, who created it in the 1860s at his renowned Moscow restaurant, Hermitage. (For more info on it, click HERE.
The sunflower salad consisted of tomatoes, radishes, cucumbers, and—with a nod to more Western European ingredients—arugula, and topped with, of course, sunflower seeds. The vinegret was a kind of beet salad, and beets are a staple food of Eastern Europe. Speaking of beets, the borscht was exceptionally delicious and was my favorite dish of the evening. It was deeply flavored and warming (as opposed to the cold beet soup on the regular menu). By that point in the evening, though, I was already getting full and needed to leave room for everything else.
The pirogki, wheat dumplings stuffed with meat and potato-cabbage) were fun and so well balanced in cabbage and spice flavors. The blini were more like crepes than the little pancakes that are usually associated with blini, and were accompanied by red caviar and an assortment of condiments. They were light and delicate and buttery.
I’m not big on meat, but I did taste a bite of the beef stroganoff. The flavor was good, but the meat was a bit tough. The branzini, on the other hand, was delicate and cooked just right.
The desserts were all delicious, but I have to say that the Napoleon was not flaky. The smetanik was like a strawberry shortcake and cheesecake combined. The onegin was sort of like a Napoleon, but was more of a sponge cake with dried fruit and almonds.
The coordinator of the event, Wendy, was nice enough to have them put a candle in one of the cakes for my birthday. The entire staff came out with tambourines and sang a Russian song to me. I have no idea what they were saying, but it was enthusiastic and loud. As Wendy said, that’s something that will probably never happen to me again!
Of course, their specialty is their infused vodkas. There is a long list of choices and I’m sure you could spend a very long time trying out each one in a variety of ways. I had the cherry vodka with cherry soda. I thought it needed a bit more soda to sweeten it up a bit but I didn’t say anything because I was desperately fighting off a stomach bug and I didn’t think it wise to get crazy with the booze anyway. Although I did try a strawberry vodka shot after dessert. It was just so vibrantly red that I couldn’t resist. Delicious.
And that was my interesting journey through a long-ago Russia. I recommend it for the experience alone–it will definitely be a memorable one.
41 East 20th Street
New York, NY 10003
Between Park Ave and Broadway
By phone 212-777-1955