One of my mom’s favorite movies is Dr. Zhivago. As a little girl I would crawl up under her and we would watch Omar Sharif steal Julie Christie’s heart while my dad watched sheep jumping over fences. Over the years the movie grew on me just as my affinity for Russian culture.
As much as I do like Russian culture and food I had never tried authentic Russian cuisine until recently. On East 20th Street is a quaint Russian restaurant named Mari Vanna. The restaurant is named for a mythical woman, who welcomed diners into her home with open arms, feeding them traditional Russian food on her best china and linens and the restaurant certainly lives up to the legend.
Upon stepping inside I felt as if I had been whisked away from Manhattan and dropped into a home in Moscow where Yuri was waiting to recite one of his bittersweet “Lara” poems. The décor, courtesy of designer Vera Tatarinova, is a Russian enthusiast’s dream filled with crystal bowls, picture frames, fine china, porcelain dolls, coasters, glasses and other precious collectibles. The cozy furnishings and friendly staff made me feel like I was visiting my comrades instead of going out to eat.
For appetizers I had Soleniya, homemade pickled vegetables, and homemade blinis with red caviar sour cream, diced red onion and crumbled egg yolk. I also had the opportunity to finally taste borsch with pampushka a soup consisting of beets, broth, beef, cabbage, carrots and potatoes. It is served with sour cream and is beyond delicious. Note to self: winter is around the corner, stock up on borsch. The only beef stroganoff I had tasted until recently was made by Stouffer’s, but after sampling the real McCoy, I could never go back to pseudo stroganoff again. The beef was tender, the sauce delectable and my mouth was watering for more.
Another great feature of Mari Vanna is vodka. The restaurant offers a diverse selection of house-infused vodkas. My favorite was the beet flavored vodka. The beet’s essence complimented the vodka well and masked some of the harshness. Talk about a way to get your vegetables, if V8 tasted like that I would buy stock in the company.
Mari Vanna is an unexpected surprise for any New Yorker that enters their doors. Even if they may not have been exposed to traditional Russian cuisine before, I have no doubt they will walk out a fan. The prices are fair and it is worth it. There is no better dining experience then when the atmosphere, décor and food combine in symbiotic harmony and create a wonderful dining experience. Nostrovia!