Mari Vanna, Knightsbridge
There are very few Russian restaurants in London. That’s unless you count the atrocities owned by Russians but serving European/Pan-Asian food at skyscraper prices (you know who you are). But to find a Russian restaurant in a swanky area that manages to avoid shiny tack, be true to its native cuisine, and win plaudits, rather than sniggers, for its décor is something to be shouted about. I’ve wanted to go to Mari Vanna for a very long time. Not because I love Russian food – the thought of pickled fish on a date is off-putting – but because it seemed like a rare gem of a place in an area characterised by showy hotels, like the neighbouring Bulgari.
A little white town house with marble steps and blooming flowerbeds, you push through an old-fashioned door into what could be an eccentric Russian grande dame’s house, which has been turned into a museum of knick-knicks and frivolities after her death. The dominating embellishments are: white painted wood, chandeliers, French lace fringings, St Petersberg crystal, antique wicker chairs, tapestry carpets, picture frames and flowers in kitsch vases, all enjoyed by an elegant Russian/Georgian clientele. It’s both over-the-top spectacle and cosy living room, a bit of a dream, for those willing to pay for it.
This is what you call ‘babuska cooking’, homely and carby fare. Not necessarily the best date food but, if you order wisely, you can mix up Russian staples – meat jelly, aubergine caviar (very good), pickled herring- with conventional and well executed mains, such as an excellent lamb shank, Chilean sea bass and herbed chicken. Excellent they should be at £20 a main, but two courses will leave you satisfied. It’s not a case of drinking vodka by the carafe full here, for that you can go to wet and wild Nikitas in Fulham. Drink wine. Sweet wine lovers, be adventurous and try the Georginan white. Otherwise, the Malbec is perfect, a comforting red for a cosy set-up.
You better brush yourself up for this one. Only the super rich Russians can treat this place as a home from home, sporting casualwear from Prada and stepping into Lanvin loafers to give their Choos a rest for the night. Everyone else, just go into your wardrobe and pick out something smart and silky, with heels or slick shoes, a very nice bag and a very polished face. Then try and make it look casual. Meet your date on the steps of the restaurant; it’s nice to go in together. When you book, ask if there is a round table going spare so you can sit close together and avoid interview-style dining. Order a cocktail and spend a long time discussing the menu. Swot up beforehand on Russian classics in order to explain to your date what each mystical item is. Then focus on the setting. Talk about that too. You see the thing about this place is, whether you have lots in common or not, there are myriad things to observe until dessert. Two or three drinks down you can finally focus on each other, begin the flirting and, if the spark suddenly emerges, suggest checking out their infamous bathrooms on the way out. Risk a kiss down there and then run out of the place in fits of schoolboy laughter. There’s a positive glut of cabs should you want to escape but if you don’t, head to the Blue Bar at The Berkeley for a nightcap, or dance the night away at the equally kooky Wellington Club opposite.
The food is a tad heavy, the prices even more so.
2. It sure is beautiful but more of a romantic destination than libido-enhancing hotspot. Perhaps one for an anniversary, or a high-maintenance first date.