A taste of Mother Russia in a Knightsbridge salon

RESTAURANT MARI VANNA
116 Knightsbridge, SW1X 7PJ el: 020 7225 3122
FOOD **
SERVICE ****
ATMOSPHERE ****
Cost per person without wine: £55

There are two facts you need to know about Mari Vanna. One: it’s done up like a Russian babushka’s dining room – albeit one with a more than a dollop of Tsarist flair. Two: it’s on Knightsbridge.

That combination is odd enough to have created a fair amount of buzz for Mari Vanna – it’s not every day you see models and the sorts of people who shop on neighbouring Sloane Street sitting down to dinner amid hanging baskets, brightly be-ribboned jars of Slavic biscuits and plenty of colourful chinaware.

But unlike Baku, the Azerbaijani restaurant and bar down the road, Mari Vanna has enough pizzazz and off-kilter charm – a sort of shabby decadence – to be a success, not just a curiosity.

The food is basically disappointing (as disappointing as food from Russia and the Soviet states can be), so my advice is to treat it as a glamorously quirky salon rather than a gourmet experience.

You sort of fall for Mari Vanna before you eat anything. A spell is cast as you duck off Knightsbridge into a doorway overhung by flower-stuffed baskets. A sexy Eastern European woman greets you warmly, ushering you over a threshold richly decorated in Russian miscellany, before you are guided into the aforementioned die-hard Russian granny’s lounge. Unlike Patio, the Polish restaurant in Shepherd’s Bush famed for its own granny-lounge appeal, this one sparkles with prosperity; the carpets seem just-cleaned and fragrant, the linens, china, vodka glasses and wine carafes glinting on the tables suggest wealth. The waiters are all gorgeous.

Mari Vanna is not a newcomer: its owners, among a class of ever more brazen global restaurateurs, have outposts in New York, as well as Moscow and St Petersburg. It’s surprising it took until now for London to arrive.

But I wonder if the food’s better in those other places. The menu is enormous, and although things look good, most of it, well, wasn’t. The likes of thinly sliced bacon dripping and smoked pork loin with garlic and spring onions, a full complement of dumplings and “traditional Georgian bread pie with Suluguni cheese” had my mouth watering but in the event, nothing we ordered was particularly impressive. (Something we didn’t order: the bread plate with butter and dill, was absolutely wonderful; the bread deep brown and malty, bursting with fennel).

The pierogi (dumplings stuffed – in this case – with pork) were dry, and the pilmeni (Siberian dumplings) were like average dim sum – no better. There is quite a lot of Georgian food here – and Georgian wine. Well, the latter really is good (you can get it in Waitrose) and we had a really high-class bottle of Bordeaux-esque 2003.

But the bread pudding was just an undigestible pizza dough covered in melted cheese. I’ve had delicious Georgian food before (in Tel Aviv, of all places) and this was not it. But who cares? Come here to drink and nibble a few dumplings to pad the stomach. We had a staggering shot of home-infused horseradish and honey vodka; it’d knock any virus out of you. I had a berry vodka that was lovely too and a honey one at the end to go with a rather nice honey cake. Don’t bother with the cocktails, but do bother with the shots.

Mari Vanna is good for a good time, and that is – sometimes – more important than the food.