Before we even order in this curious new Russian-themed restaurant, we’re given enough carbohydrates to make an Atkins adherent faint clean away.
There are several varieties of bread with herb butter (the almost-black, mulchy rye is particularly good) plus a vast basket of sushki, a kind of Russian pretzel that translates, with remarkable candour, as ‘dry little things’. I know it can be fiercely cold in St Petersburg or the Steppes but I’m not sure this is necessary in Knightsbridge.
Our dinner continues in the same stolid vein: ribsticking food at prices to make your eyes water harder than glugging chilli vodka. Take delicate-sounding aubergine ‘caviar’, for instance (the real stuff is available too, but since it starts at £55 for Ossetra, unclear whether wild or farmed, we’ll pass, thanks): it’s a murky sludge with none of the alluring smokiness and depth of its relatives, imam bayildi or baba ganoush.
Or sour cream-doused pelmeni, their dense, chewy pasta casings like Korean mandu dumplings, spurting juices from a waterlogged sea bass filling. The fish tastes entirely of itself: fresh, sweet and unsullied by aromatics – or much flavour.
But oh, the place is pretty. It’s like an enchanted house wreathed in flowers, one that never needs dusting: every surface sprouts a knick-knack or geegaw, Russian doll, vintage photo or softly glittering chandelier. The designers have cleverly kept the palette so chalky and ghostly that if the Snow Queen wafted in for some Russian salad, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.
The room is rammed with young, dressed-up non-Londoners having a whale of a time. Though we arrive to an almost-empty restaurant, we’re still squidged between the entrance and the waiters’ station, so our charming servers regularly trip over the ‘stool for your purses, madam’. But it fills up as rapidly as our fellow diners are hitting the flavoured vodkas.
Surely they’re not here for the food? Lacy, slightly damp courgette fritters come with more soured cream and anodyne smoked salmon. There are glossy, bun-like pierogi, briochey pastry stuffed with one-dimensional fillings. Beef strogonoff isn’t good: the meat tastes exhausted, its sour cream has clotted into something resembling Band-Aid-coloured cottage cheese, and serving it with buckwheat kasha, reeking of truffle oil, means that any taste it had has fled in terror. But it’s served under a so-cute matryoshka tea cosy: awww.
In fairness, I’m not sure that the choices we make do justice to Mari Vanna. Wading through the long, long menu, we ply a tentative route that could be titled ‘dishes vaguely familiar to British food journos who have never visited Russia’.
If someone else was paying, I would so go back. Because I am A Girl, and I defy even the most minimally inclined member of my sex not to come over all gooey in Mari Vanna. Of course I know it’s a shtick – the place is owned by a big ol’ corporation not, as its marketing suggests, a smiley grandmother who collects enchanting bric-a-brac. It’s testament to the design’s success that while you’re admiring the crocheted doilies and tart’s boudoir bathroom, you’re blissfully unaware that Ginza Project owns more than 70 restaurants, employs more than 5,000 people and has partners called things like Baltic Monolith.
Who am I to know if this is good Russian food or not? I fear this may be one of these personal taste things: much of what we eat isn’t even in the neighbourhood of my idea of fun. But the bill comes in a purse shaped like a lugubrious cartoon character and staff are embracingly friendly: I get a guided tour of the private party downstairs and we’re offered more condensed milk for our sweet pancakes because ‘that’s what ladies like’. By the time we’ve necked the vodka and expensive Georgian wine recommended by the handsome sommelier, we can almost believe that babushka Maria Ivanovna will be waving us out into a snow-frosted St Petersburg night. Until I nearly walk into the next door Rolex store’s plate glass windows, that is.
A meal for two with wine, water and service costs about £150. 116 Knightsbridge. www.marivanna.co.uk