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It may be corny, kitsch and OTT, but every sentimental detail of Mari Vanna lovingly captures Mother Russia for the smart Knightsbridge crowd – although it can seem like some ‘bizarre parallel
universe’. Everywhere there are thick lace curtains, draped scarves and oriental rugs, mirrors and lavish chandeliers, embroidered chairs, trinkets and framed photographs – it feels for all the
world like a deliciously busy, cramped living room (and that’s the intention). The food is also surprisingly authentic stuff (but not for the ‘light and easy diner’). Check out the khod, a sort of
chicken brawn served with a shot of horseradish vodka, as well as Siberian pelmeni dumplings, salted herring with beetroot, delicate pirozhki dumplings or beef Stroganoff. Otherwise, play the
oligarch with a pot of caviar and some blinis – and be prepared to feel utterly charmed and pampered.
But despite it now being over two decades since the USSR disintegrated, and despite the growing numbers of eastern Europeans now living in London, I had still not dined in a Russian restaurant. But that was easily rectified when I was invited to a Winter Warmer dinner at Mari Vanna. Following the success of sister restaurants in St Petersburg, Moscow and New York, Mari Vanna opened in Kinghstbridge, London in December 2011, a stone’s throw from Harrods. Walking into the candlelit interior is like stepping into the parlour of your eccentric Russian maiden aunt, who has a hoarding problem. Every inch of wall and every nook and cranny is overflowing with framed photographs, mismatched furniture, ornate crockery, French lace, crystal chandeliers from St Petersburg, lamps draped with fringed shawls, wooden stacking dolls, bookshelves filled with Russian literature, and crystal bowls of Sushki (a traditional Russian tea bread). The eccentricity also extends to the bathrooms where you conduct your business to the sound of Russian folk songs and the loos have old-fashioned pull-chain mechanisms. It’s the kind of place that makes minimalists break out in a cold sweat – but charming for all that, and a refreshing break from the blond wood Generic Gastropub school of decor...
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Mari Vanna, a Russian restaurant with subsidiaries in Moscow, St. Petersburg and New York, has recently opened a new outpost in – who would have guessed – the Little Russia of London, Knightsbridge. I naturally assumed it would be an overpriced pretentious place for noveau-riche Russians (well, this might have been covered with Novikov) and was pleasantly surprised to read a variety of good reviews (The Skinny Bib, John Lancaster at the Guardian )...
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