In a dining room, there’s always a hierarchy. Your average eater is not going to get the same treatment as, say, Adam Platt, Christine Quinn, the chef’s mother, or the guy who just ordered the $500 bottle of champagne. But at a competent restaurant, your status as non-VIP is not made glaringly obvious—you can still expect to have your order taken, your wine fetched, and your food brought to the table in less than an hour. It’s the hospitality business, after all, and you’re there to exchange genuine currency for food.
At Mari Vanna? Well, that all depends. If it’s a slow night, things might go your way. If not, well, you’ll have to wait for the table of models to get their vodka and caviar (no blinis!), and the fat cat next to you to get his appetizer and complain about his table several times, before you can have a glass of water.
Mari Vanna is a new, upscale, “home-style” Russian restaurant in the Flatiron District, and, at times, the service is so bad it’s comical. One night, after suffering three hours of Soviet-style slow dinner service, we finally finished our main courses and asked for a dessert menu. No dice. We asked for it again, to no avail.
Finally, it came. But then we couldn’t get anyone to take our order. So we gave up on dessert, and managed to get our hands on the check—at which point our waiter decided that he wanted to give us a complimentary dessert. We tried to decline. “Please wait,” he pleaded with puppy dog eyes. We sat for another 20 minutes. (Why? In retrospect, I have no idea.) Then a cold apple terrine that had obviously just been pulled from the walk-in arrived. “How is it?” our waiter asked. “Fine,” replied my friend, only to look up and see that he had vanished.
This haphazardness makes a bit more sense when you learn that Mari Vanna was meant to be a private club, complete with keys for those who made the cut. Alas, the kind of snobbery that might have been a good business plan in 2007 just doesn’t make much money in 2009, and so the restaurant (which has a branch in Moscow) reluctantly opened its doors to us hoi polloi.
The greatest pleasure of a night at Mari Vanna isn’t the china-plated borscht, chicken Kiev, or herring—all of which are good, not stellar—but the room itself, which is meticulously, amazingly kitschy. If you had a rich Eastern European grandmother, you’ve probably seen this tchotchkes-galore approach to interior design: embroidered place mats; shelves cluttered with china dolls, old books, and black-and-white family photos; vodka served in tiny etched-crystal glasses; painted salt cellars that look like teapots; massive chandeliers; claw-footed, upholstered chairs; and liberal use of gold leaf. Arrive with a reservation, and you’ll find a gilded frame on the table, displaying your name. When you sit down, a tall taper that looks like it’s from Dracula’s castle is lit just for you. Chilly? Unless he’s occupied with the models, your waiter will wrap a babushka-style scarf around your shoulders.
That’s all very entertaining, but it only goes so far. The food is competent, but not good enough to justify the prices—or the attitude. None of the dishes, for instance, are as dependably tasty as their equivalents at Café Glechik in Brighton Beach.
Of Mari Vanna’s appetizers, choose the pleasantly hokey olivier salad—invented in the 19th century at Moscow’s Hermitage. It’s a mayo’d mixture of diced potatoes, carrots, pickles, ham, and peas, with halved quail eggs to dress it up. Carrot cutlets look like fast-food breaded chicken patties, but contain shredded carrots that’ve been cooked in milk. With a dollop of sour cream, the cutlets are very fine, sweet, and vegetal. But why are they $16? Similarly, a small plate of pickled vegetables (mainly cucumbers, plus tomatoes and cabbage) inexplicably costs $12. A plate of silky, delicious herring with red onions, roasted potatoes, and brown bread is the same price, but a much better value. Of the soups, the borscht is a bargain at $10, deeply savory and crimson, bobbing with two chunks of tender beef short rib.
You can also get caviar service—blinis, dripping butter, with diced boiled egg whites, sour cream, and red onions. The salmon caviar is reasonable at $25, but the sturgeon, besides being unsustainable, is exorbitant at nearly $200. Likewise, oysters are $4 each, more than they are at Marea.
To drink, there’s vodka, obviously. Mari Vanna has many Russian and Polish brands, along with their own infused varieties, of which the beet is the best, so deep and earthy that it almost tastes like coffee. We also liked the apricot- and prune-infused varieties.
Main dishes tend toward the heavy, creamy Franco-Russian cuisine that arose in the 18th and 19th centuries as Western European food became fashionable among the Russian wealthy—hence dishes like chicken Kiev, trout in cream sauce, beef Stroganoff, and braised duck leg with mashed potatoes. That last dish features a fine, meaty specimen, but ours was cold at the bone. Chicken Kiev has a crisply fried exoskeleton, but the chicken breast inside is dry as cotton, and not helped much by the ocean of dill butter hidden within. (Although, as a bonus, you do get a bib to prevent the molten butter from exploding onto your shirt. Alas, the bib is plain white, lacking a picture of either a lobster or Putin.) The beef Stroganoff comes with a nice, steaming pot of earthy kasha, and the beef and mushroom stew, in its rich sour-creamy sauce, would have been very delicious, were it not for the truly overwhelming amount of truffle oil. None of these dishes are terrible, but none are worth seeking out or desperately hunting down an absent waiter for.
The story goes that Mari Vanna (hilariously, pronounced “marijuana”) was an old woman who took in strangers and cooked for them. Eventually, the strangers became like family, and Mari Vanna gave them keys to her house. This particular Mari Vanna seems to have missed the point of that story.