The new restaurant Mari Vanna can make at least one strong claim: it isn’t a clone of a hundred other places. It did not open on the same expensive block as Gramercy Tavern and Veritas because there was huge demand for home-style Russian cooking. So I have to assume the owners actually believed in what they were doing, which is an excellent start.
The name, pronounced like “marijuana,” is apparently fictitious. We are supposed to believe we’re in Mme. Vanna’s parlor, where a privileged few feast on Russian classics like borscht and beef stroganoff. Companion restaurants in Moscow and St. Petersburg operate like private clubs, to which only the annointed are given a key. They wisely ditched that idea, but a bit of it remains. When we arrived, there was a placard on our table that read, “Reserved For Mark [sic].”
The only pro review comes from Sarah DiGregorio of the Voice, who complained of “suffering three hours of Soviet-style slow dinner service.” No one could call this a fast-food place, but we didn’t experience anything like that. And the food, if not revelatory, is certainly very good.
The menu is compact, with six appetizers ($12–25), five salads ($12–17), three soups ($10), and six entrées ($18–27). Naturally, there are vodkas: 70 of them. The wine list is a bit too expensive, with hardly anything under $50.
The décor looks like a cross between a fin de siècle Moscow parlor and an antique shop with little knick-knacks lining the shelves (photos here). There are fancy chandeliers, little doilies at every place setting, candles at every table, and lovely china that does not always match. The area near the front, where we were seated, is a bit cramped; the tables seem to be more spread out in the back.
The bread service (above left) was very good, with a house-made spread that seemed to be a mixture of butter, sour cream and dill.
We ordered two appetizers, but our server was confused, and only one came. It was for the best, as the Hachapuri (cheese pie) was more than enough for two. It resembled a cheese pizza, but richer, thicker, and heavier.
The first entrée listed is a braised duck leg. The server chided me for trying to order it. “Won’t you have something Russian?” I figured that anything on this menu was already Russian. Apparently not.
So I switched to the Rainbow Trout ($27; above left) with chanterelle mushrooms in a white cream sauce. This was a very well executed dish: a whole fish, split and filleted, with mushrooms stuffed inside. Again, it was very rich, and two could easily have shared it.
My girlfriend had the Chicken Kiev ($25; above right), which was much better than we expected for a dish so often phoned in at lesser restaurants.
The restaurant was full on a Saturday evening, with much of the clientele Russian-speaking, from what we could overhear. Service was friendly and mostly attentive—a tad on the slow side, but not bothersome, as we were in no hurry.
I don’t have much of a basis for comparison, as I haven’t tried many Russian restaurants. Okay, none. But we had a relaxing time at this somewhat unusual restaurant, and the food is certainly a lot better than it needs to be.
Mari Vanna (41 E. 20th Street between Park Avenue & Broadway, Flatiron District)