Entering through a hectic hallway with bicycles on the ceiling and pot plants covering every free square of space, the main dining space – an imagined living room of mythical babushka, grandma Vanna – is all glinting chandeliers, gilt mirrors, lace curtains, rustic rugs, Fabergé eggs and cupboards heaving with knick-knacks in an ensemble so sumptuous and satisfying, I could dine on the interiors alone. Furniture and accoutréments are French Regency meets chaotic kitsch – the Ritz during the Blitz. China geese nestle among empty wine bottles, while pickled roots rest ominously in jars and wistful Bolshevik lyrics float melancholically through the air.
Opening opposite the Bulgari Hotel in Knightsbridge this March, the London outpost of Mari Vanna is the newest addition to the international Russian chain, which boasts sister restaurants in St Petersburg, Moscow and New York. Appealing to affluent oligarchs abroad – Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich is reportedly a regular – Mari Vanna is unashamedly and endearingly over-the-top. Every last detail has been considered, from the ornate china salt sellers to the cut crystal glasses – even my handbag is given a pouffe of its own. Ushered to one of the exquisitely laid tables, I clock a picture frame with the words: “We are waiting for Lucy” inscribed in English and Russian inside – an adorable touch to make me feel at home.
Before ordering, we’re presented with a wooden paddle stacked with homemade rye bread and garlic butter flecked with salt crystals. Created by St Petersburg-based executive chef Alexander Belkovich, the menu – printed in both English and Russian on brown paper – is extensive to the point of intimidating, featuring a kaleidoscope of variants of Russian salad – who knew potato, mayonnaise and carrots could be tweaked in so many ways? After much deliberation, I opt for the beetroot and salted herring version, which arrives in a galleon-shaped cut crystal dish. Cold yet comforting, it turns my white bone china plate pink.
Next up is a quintet of blinis served with a small bowl of salmon roe – burnt orange spherical delights that look like they’ve escaped from Heston’s kitchen. As delicate as the doilies adorning the tables, the pancakes are light, fluffy, and an ideal casing for the salty salmon balls that burst in the mouth, filling it with saline fluid, assuaged by the temperate soured cream. I’d first tried the dish on Shrove Tuesday, when, having gate-crashed a Notting Hill dinner party, two tattooed travelling Russian girls pimped our pancakes with salmon roe, much to my delight. They left London for Moscow the next morning.
I digress… Mini courgette fritters served with smoked salmon are wonderfully moreish, but could have done with more bite. A homely bowl of borscht meanwhile, proves the culinary highlight of the night. The purple broth of beef and beetroot served with a side of soured cream and pampushka – a garlic-topped bread roll, is so comforting and warming, it’s like a hug from the inside, the fragrant, beety broth enriched by generous dollops of cooling soured cream.
Disconcertingly, I’m as stuffed as the cupboards by the time the main event – chicken fitters with pickled cucumber and mash – arrives. Expecting goujon-like strips of fried chicken in breadcrumbs, I’m instead greeted by two meat cakes the size of Mr. T’s medallions, the interiors of which are moist and juicy, but prove insurmountable. The mash meanwhile, is rich and creamy, while the cucumbers offer a pleasing vinegar kick. My companion’s seabass is a wiser choice. Silky and aromatic, it falls off the fork and delights in the mouth.
The wine list, featuring Russian sparkler Abrau-Durso and Château d’Yquem 1999, is small and ambitiously priced. Its diminutive size is a relief after the biblical array of dishes on offer. Side stepping the natural wine offering from Georgia, I opt instead for an Italian Chardonnay in the form of Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi Pomino Castello di Pomino Bianco Riserva 2009. Its golden-hued contents is unctuous and divine, the oak judiciously judged, adding texture and depth without overpowering the ensemble.
If you have room for dessert, you’ll be richly rewarded with the likes of milky homemade vanilla ice cream sluttily drizzled with warm chocolate sauce and crêpes served with hand-crafted strawberry jam washed down with 5cl shots of homemade vodka, from the soothingly sweet honeycomb, to the autumnal apple and cinnamon. Mari Vanna is a one off. Its cosy interiors and hearty home cooking are a surprising comfort during our times of economic uncertainty. Gone are the days when we long for gloss and glitz; today’s diners yearn to nestle in the ample bosom of grandma’s floral pinny and be plied with reassuring retro classics. Before departing the dream-like landscape, be sure to pay a visit to the loos, home to fairy tales narrated by the Russian equivalent of Roald Dahl.
Mari Vanna, 116 Knightsbridge, London, SW1X 7PJ; Tel: +44(0)20 7225 3122. A meal for two with wine and service costs around £130.