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Restaurant review: Mari Vanna, Moscow

Cuisine: Russian
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The entrance, décor and atmosphere evokes a 1940s home – complete with Russian aunty. By Paul Drury 
A riddle wrapped inside a mystery inside an enigma? Winston Churchill’s oft-quoted aside on Russia might have applied to the politics and culture But today it can equally be applied to Moscow's cuisine. Intriguing, glamorous and traditional in equal measures - it really is a city that offers something completely unique.
Mari Vanna was singled-out well ahead of our trip as a must-visit for a couple wanting to experience classic Russian dishes in a fun, unique setting. Located away from much of the expat scene, in this increasingly expensive and often flamboyant city.
Arriing at Mari Vanna we stepped in out of the bitter Moscow cold. It was perhaps a little above the seasonal average at -4 in November but quite honestly felt colder.
The greeting in the restaurant was friendly, if a little unexpectedly casual. A man dressed in an Adidas tracksuit welcomed us into the restaurant and out of the cold.
The whole entrance, décor and atmosphere is meant to replicate a 1940s Russian house – owned by a well to-do Russian aunty. This throwback effect is only enhanced by magnificent 1940s old-style televisions broadcasting old news reports, all helping to create a truly unique atmosphere.
Free of four layers and two scarves; we relaxed as we walked through the first dining room chintzy with floral wallpaper, rickety wardrobes and teapots. The young and beautiful Muscovite crowd reminded us we were in one of Russia's most fashionable neighbourhoods.
We were shown to our table by a waitress in a pretty polka dot dress. With beaming smiles she handed us the menu, bound in a rather quaint wooden front and back cover.
We were grateful for the English translation. The wine list was pricey, even by my London standards, starting at around 600 roubles (around £35). Apparently, this is due to Russian disagreements with Georgian vineyards. Mari Vanna might be designed to evoke a sense of Soviet Russia, but the price screams modern-day Moscow.
So we opted for the local tipple - horse-radish liquor and throwing it back in one we set about keeping the cold Moscow fashion. We followed with a dark Kozel beer - nutty, oaty and ever so slightly chocolatey. Pretzels accompanied the beer, reached down from the top of a nearby wardrobe - a unique storage solution and part of  the restaurant’s charm.
For starters we ordered the borsch and, emboldened by the horseradish liquor - the salo and Rye bread. The borsch was delightful, served in a wide porcelain bowl with a deep dark red colour and texture. Perfectly spiced and warming, it was a great way to get the Russian food trip well under way. Beetroot has forever played a central role in European cuisine and there’s no better way to sample it than as a hot soup on a cold Moscow night.
The salo was, well, quite simply a lump of lard and bread, with a side helping of radishes. And noot in the least bit enjoyable. Slimy slices of pig fat, very hard to chew  - note to self – this is one to avoid.
For mains we ordered the salmon fishcakes, golden in breadcrumbs and beautifully presented. I ordered the veal stew which arrived at the table in a heavy metal pan. This veal was pinky tender, the potatoes wonderfully filling– a hearty and thoroughly enjoyable main course.
Instead of puddings we plumped for another round of liquors – unflavoured vodka -  to round off the meal.
A quick nip to the gents revealed walls papered with newspaper pages from the Soviet days. And a cat flap. The restaurant cat it appears is clearly as well served as the guests.
Lard aside, I’d go back in hearbeat. And with a London site opening soon that's a done deal
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21 December 2011
By: Paul Drury
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