Accompanying photos here: http://www.girleatscity.com/2011/10/m...
Mari Vanna is beautiful. That's the first thing you'll notice when you walk in. That and the fact that (half) the people in it are beautiful, too. There are ice cold Russian princesses everywhere you look, all blonde and all seemingly escorted by chubby men half their height or scruffy guys in black leather jackets, wearing sunglasses at night.
This New York City outpost of the popular St. Petersburg restaurant is somehow simultaneously grandiose and homey. There are chandeliers on the ceiling, antiqued white wooden chairs and lots of long tables covered with white tablecloths. (It's a popular place for group celebrations.) But on the table, there are also matryoshka dolls painted with Madonna's face (the singer, not the Virgin Mary) and filled with Sweet 'n' Low, the pretty plates brought out for serving dessert are charmingly mismatched, and the narrow hallway by the two single-stall bathrooms is covered from floor to ceiling with the John Hancocks of predecessors who also had too long a wait before doing their business.
The food could be an afterthought at a potentially sceney, potentially romantic place like this. But to Mari Vanna's credit, it isn't.
When you first sit down, slices of dark, raisin-studded, pliantly fresh bread are brought out on a small wooden board, accompanied by chopped radishes, green onion sprigs, and a small ramekin half filled with plain, sweet butter and half with an herbed (I think parsley) butter. It seems logical to eat the bread buttered and topped with radishes and green onion, but I noticed that some Ukrainian dining companions ate the green onion straight, or with their appetizers.
A salad of fresh baby artichoke, wild baby arugula, shaved Parmesan cheese and lemon vinaigrette was extremely sour, though this was likely by design. (Lebanese salads, for instance, are often much more acidic than most Americans are accustomed to.) Baby artichokes were marinated, but not cooked, which left the texture neither crunchy nor soft. These were cut into thin slices and tossed with good quality lettuce and thinly shaved Parmesan.
A bowl of borsch with pampushka / traditional beet and vegetables soup with beef came with thick, rich smetana (similar to sour cream, but with more milk fat) and a pampushka, a small, plump little garlicky roll with a shiny, possibly egg white-washed skin. The borsch (not a misspelling) was fantastic, really one of the best renditions I've had at a restaurant. Broth was intensely concentrated and beefy, with slivers of cooked beets, potatoes and shredded beef.
The whimsically named herring under a fur coat / layers of chopped herring, baked carrots, beet and potato with a touch of mayonnaise and hard boiled eggs (pictured at the top of this post) was also delicious. I didn't frankly see anything fur-coaty about the presentation -- thank goodness -- but the dish was wonderful to eat. Herring, salted and I think lightly smoked, was finely chopped and attractively topped with alternating layers of cooked, creamy carrots, beet and potato. I think the creamy texture of the carrots and potato were in part attributable to mixing with mayonnaise. Chopped slivers of hard boiled eggs (the "fur"?) topped the wide cylinder.
The Mari Vanna smoked fish plate / assortment of house cured salmon, hot smoked salmon and cold smoked oseterina (sturgeon) came on a generously sized wooden paddle with four, not three, preparations of fish. At the left-most in the picture was the hot smoked salmon, four small cuts of unctuous, glisteny salmon. These were very good, but not as intensely flavored as the cold smoked salmon on the platter. To the right of the cold-smoked salmon were four large, thickly sliced pieces of I think hot smoked oseterina and then four large rolls of more thinly sliced cold smoked oseterina. The thickly cut, hot smoked oseterina was to me less delicious than the cold smoked, with a less pronounced flavor, and an odd, almost mushy-firm texture. The thinly sliced rolls of cold smoked salmon on the right were deeply flavorful. All types of fish came sprinkled with dill and with cucumber and lemon slices on the side, for garnish.
A steak kebab served with plum ripe tomatoes, cucumbers, red onions and sour cream sauce was also very nicely made. Vegetables were fresh and crisp, the tomatoes were, indeed, very ripe, sweet and juicy. The semi-chewy steak, prepared simply and not brined as far as I could tell, was seasoned only with salt, pepper and possibly onion. It was cooked (possibly grilled, but more likely griddled on a grill pan) to a medium rare temperature and very juicy. The meat and vegetables, while good, paled in comparison to the real star of the plate: the decadently rich, thick, creamy sour cream sauce.
I'm not usually a dessert fan, but a dining companion's onegin / sponge cake with layers of vanilla cream, apricots, prunes, raisins and almonds won me over completely. It's not a dessert I've tried before, so I can't compare it to other versions, but this was a wonderful combination of light (light sponge cake soaked with cream) and rich (dried fruit). There was a layer of caramel at the top and the plate was drizzled with a caramel sauce before serving.
Fruit and berry platters for the table (not pictured) included watermelon, strawberries, raspberries, grapes (a thick-skinned variety with seeds and a wonderful fragrance, common in the Ukraine, a dining companion told us), pear, grapefruit, oranges, strawberries, blueberries and apples. Much of the fruit was a bit underripe, but it was a refreshing dessert option for those of us who prefer something light after a big meal.
Mari Vanna's Russian version of a Napolean was very different from the French mille-feuille or Italian mille foglie. This was a pretty rustic looking affair, unevenly tiered, without the neat layer of white and chocolate icing on top. Where mille-feuille and mille foglie include crisp layers of pastry, which manage to stay somewhat crisp when layered with a very thick, almost custard-like filling, this version used puff pastry, which softened upon prolonged contact with the softer, more liquid cream filling. It was enjoyable to eat, but just very different from what many Americans might expect from a dessert of this name.
Overall, Mari Vanna is an intensely likable restaurant with lovely decor and good, occasionally excellent, food. It's not hard to see why it's very popular for large birthday celebrations. Aside from our own table of fifteen, the wait staff had to come out and sing Russian birthday songs while playing tambourines and lighting candles with sparklers quite literally about seven or eight times in the few hours we were there. I haven't seen this dense an occurrence of birthdays per hour, per square foot, since the last party I attended at Chuck-E-Cheese. You could write off the entire experience as kitschy and tired. (One does feel for the staff who must have better things to do than to sing songs for restaurant patrons all night long.) Or you could sit back, drink a few shots of the restaurant's infused vodkas, and enjoy the feeling of being transported to a place far, far away from New York City, at least for a few hours.
41 East 20th Street, New York, NY 10003