As you might know (because I’m going on about it constantly), I’m originally Russian. We moved to London when I was a kid, but I’m still Russian enough to dig the food and always quite interested when a new Russian restaurant pops up. Mari Vanna has been open for a few months in London, so my parents, Andrew and I gave it a go at the weekend.
tl:dr review: expensive but authentically delightful Russian food in a jolly setting, totally let down by shitty service.
First of all, the place looks amazing (hence the picture post). It’s kind of worth it just for that. Housed in a big residential-ish building in (but, of course) Knightsbridge, there’s even a load of doorbells outside the entrance as if you’re popping round to eat at the fictional Maria Ivanovna’s flat. The whole place it decked out in Russian knicknaks, doodads and what-nots on every surface. The napkins come rolled in the bottom half of a Russian doll and the bill arrives in a leather purse, it’s all very very cute. The bathrooms are especially increds, with Russian audiobooks playing, beautiful clashing tiles and wallpaper and lots of little gold mirrors.
The food is legit, too. My mum and I both gave it the thumbs up (my mum, being Russian, fussy and vegan is a tough customer) and the Brits were also happy. There’s a good balance between the Very Russian stuff (anything jellied, salo, all the salads) and the Not Too Scary for newcomers stuff (beef stroganoff, fish), lots of veggie options and some excellent drinks. The food is properly Russian though, not westernised fusion or any of that nonsense (at least half the clientele were eastern european btw, though this is Knightsbridge and half of Zuma is Russian as well…) The only thing we found they were missing was solyanka and cherry Вареники for dessert. Mari Vanna, if you’re reading, I can put you in touch with my grandma for the best recipe.
(Sex on the birch, I see what you did there.)
We didn’t have alcohol, but a jug of (totally disgusting imo, but my mum’s choice) Kvas and a round of delicious raspberry and cranberry Mors drinks which came in lovely mismatched crystal jugs. Some of the cocktails look great and I’m sure add to the occasion (though at about £15-20 each, also the bill!).
(The Napoleon cake, a Russian version of a mille-feuille, was about about 3 times the size such a rich dessert should be, but that’s not something to complain about. Have it with black tea.)
Other than the massive dessert, the portions were rather small though. I read in some early reviews that the portions were enormous, but I think they must have adjusted them following feedback. I was dithering between a few of the mains and could have easily eaten two, without side dishes.
On the downside, the service was abysmal. The wait time between getting the menus and anyone bothering to take our order was about 30 minutes and that was only after several attempts to grab the staff’s attention. Once the food started to arrive, it came in weird fits and starts that were surely too random to be intentional. There’s the home-style, bring everything as it’s ready approach (which I love) and then there’s bringing two people’s main courses > then half the starters > then one more main course > then rest of the starters > then the last main course over the space of an hour. If you’re splitting the menu into starters and mains, surely they should come out of the kitchen in vaguely that order, or why bother? Even the cakes we had for dessert came about 15 minutes before the tea that was supposed to accompany them. It’s a pot of TEA for crying out loud, why does that take 15 minutes?! They also forgot part of my order completely, but still tried to charge for it.
The restaurant is quite small and there was a lot of staff around, so we couldn’t work out what was going on with the service. Management issues maybe? Trying to get the bill and then pay it was another debacle which took f o r e v e r. We saw the table next to us having a similarly frustrating time, so it wasn’t just us!
I didn’t have any problems getting a table (in fact, I only booked the day before, but it was for a weird time between lunch and dinner. Dinner reservations are trickier.) but on arrival/departure/toilet trips, you could hear a constant stream of people in the hallway or on the phone that had issues with their reservation or with tables being given away.
For nearly £200 for 4 people without alcohol, I’d expect WAY better service. It is a bloody shame though, because it ruined an otherwise excellent restaurant. Hopefully they’ll get it sorted because the food is REALLY good.
One of each of the pirogi, with Beef & Pork, Cabbage with egg and Sea Bass fillings.
Salad Vinegret, some of the assortment of pickles and buckwheat.
love the tea glasses in their ornate holders, reminds me of getting the overnight train between Moscow and St Petersburg.
my beef and pork pelmeni with sour cream on the side (this is a £13 main and they forgot my £6 fried potato side order, to put the prices/portion size in perspective). I also wanted to try the Golubtzi (stuffed vine leaves) and Вареники (savoury dumplings), which I bet would be good. Basically anything that’s a small pastry or a dumpling is my favourite, which is why I also fucking love dim sum.
The herby garlicy butter that came with the bread was amazing, I was piling it on like it was cream cheese.
This and the two below are the bathroom, isn’t it the coolest?
In case you were wondering how the decor stacks up against a real Russian or Ukrainian grandma, below is what my babushka’s house looks like. They definitely know what they’re doing.
I’d love to hear any Russian (or Eastern European, I’m not fussy) restaurant suggestions for London. I’ve been to Baltic for drinks (highly recommended!) and hoping to make it there for food soon. My Russian pal has recommended Nikita’s in South Ken. Anywhere else?
Further afield, I’ve been to the quite famous Russian Tea Rooms in NYC (pretty good) and my parents raved about Pasternak in Berlin on their trip a few months ago.
If nothing else, this inspired my mum to visit a Russian supermarket and she’s promising us a proper home cooked russian evening when we’re next round. She sent me this picture this morning ^__________^ GET IN MY MOUTH Зефир!