The shelf above your head bursts with china cats, plump dolls and rose-adorned teapots, a jumble so intense it threatens to collapse your senses. On the plate in front of you, cold chicken swims in a copious amount of jelly aspic. An accordionist plays a jaunty tune in the corner of the room, while a jolly girl in an old-fashioned floral dress delivers a shot of sea buckthorn vodka.
It might be a fever dream, or a David Lynch fantasy turned relentlessly frilly. It's definitely madness. And it's also the latest in a chain of high-end Russian restaurants, with outposts in London, New York, Washington, D.C., and now — lucky us — L.A.
That "lucky us" is not sarcastic, not in the slightest. It's an uncommon occurrence for me to encourage a restaurant visit for anything other than the food, but nonetheless that's what I'm about to do.
Because I do think Mari Vanna is well worth a visit, whether or not you have any interest in Russian cuisine. There are so many other reasons to plop yourself into the middle of this ... what? Restaurant-as–art installation? I'm not sure that's what its owners intended it to be, but when you put it all together, when you mix the ingredients of staff and customers and food and setting, absurdist art is what this recipe renders.
So yes, go for the exuberance of the waitresses: rosy of cheek and thick of stocking, dressed in colorful outfits, they extol the food and drinks in sing-song voices with heavy Russian accents. It is near impossible to feel anything but extreme affection for these ladies, who seem as though they might overflow with goodwill and the giddy joy of plying you with vodka.
Go for the people-watching. This is not a loud restaurant — indeed, it aims to create an atmosphere of demure teatime. Which is all the better to observe the amazing, sculpted blondes dressed in furs and speaking Russian, nestled at their table amongst shopping bags from the nearby boutiques. L.A. is a particularly good town for ogling opulence, but I saw more diamonds of larger varieties at Mari Vanna than anywhere else in recent memory. These are ladies with purses worth more than my car (Mari Vanna provides wee stools to perch them on) and boobs that cost more than the contents of my 401(k).
But mostly you should go to Mari Vanna for the utter insanity of the decor: the walls festooned with teapots, tiles and knickknacks; the mantle coated in white, dripping wax and topped with a cacophony of candlesticks; the flowery wallpaper and flowery plates and flowery cushions; the overwhelming floweriness of everything in sight. It's as if the concept of "shabby chic" took steroids and then became a cancer, splitting and multiplying ad infinitum. It's a dollhouse pushed into insanity, the drawing room of a prissy hoarder grandmother gone extra batty. It's awesome.
All of this is crammed into the house that once held Joe Pytka's Bastide, one of the city's best restaurants and breeding ground for many of our current top chefs. The bones of the old house remain, but little else of Bastide is recognizable. The frilly madhouse interior is fronted by a patio garden of wicker furniture, trees, potted plants and twinkling lights. It's slightly less overwhelming than the indoor space but no less charming.
I suppose you could go to Mari Vanna for the food, particularly if you have a nostalgic penchant for the home cooking of the Eastern bloc. But even if you don't, you're unlikely to find the food of Russia cooked more carefully or with more heart than at Mari Vanna.
There are no culinary tricks, no attempts to Americanize or modernize this food. Served on mismatched flowery (of course) plates, Mari Vanna's edible offerings come mostly in shades of white and brown, and are cooked with a loving reverence for tradition.
Yet ... how to say this delicately? If you were to find Russian food a tad bland, say, or if you have previously missed the comforting nuances of this particular cuisine, Mari Vanna isn't going to do much to change your mind.
Russians are very good at cold fish–type things, and if you have the cash, you can order from the extensive caviar menu. If that's not in your budget, the smoked fish appetizer provides cured salmon and sturgeon and smoked paddlefish, all with their own levels of salt and fat and texture, from silky to fluffy to firm.
There are pelmeni and vareniki, dumplings of veal and potato, served with sour cream and tasting of sustenance, as basic a way to fill your belly and keep it full as has ever been invented. Blini come with house-cured salmon, beef or caviar, slightly less delicate than crepes and slightly more austere in their functionality.
Mari Vanna serves certain dishes that are rarely available in America, like satsivi, a Georgian dish of cold chicken in a thick walnut sauce, its bitter edge making it intriguing enough to keep you going back for more. Shuba, also known as "herring under a fur coat," is pretty to look at, a layered disk of herring, potatoes, beets and onions, topped with egg. You might mistake it for a tartare, so familiar is this plating style for raw tuna and beef, but the pungent fish and soft-cooked veggies are nothing like tartare. The herring is as potent as you might imagine, and the other ingredients work to soothe its assertive flavor, but how enjoyable you find it will depend on how much you like herring in the first place.
If your ideal of beef Stroganoff is modeled from the Spago version, or you've enjoyed Bernhard Mairinger's rendition at BierBeisl, Mari Vanna's mild, tender beef in sour cream sauce might seem a little one-note, though the accompanying pickles add perky crunch. For the most part, entrees follow the same plot lines: mild, meaty, filling.
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If you're doing it right, your meal at Mari Vanna will be lubricated with vodka — horseradish vodka, which you can get in a martini with pickle juice, or apricot vodka, which is less sweet than you might imagine and comes as a martini with black tea syrup and a tart lemon backbone.
In the evening, when you arrive for your reservation, your patio table will be adorned with a proclamation in an ornate frame: "This table reserved for John!" Then your rosy-cheeked server will smile widely, suggest some dishes with giddy exuberance, and bring you flavored vodka shots. From inside the house, someone sings karaoke badly. What's not to love?
MARI VANNA | Two stars | 8475 Melrose Place, Beverly Grove | (323) 655-1977 | marivanna.ru/la | Mon.-Sat., noon-1 a.m. (dinner hours listed as 5:30-11 p.m., with a late-night menu to follow, though I was hurried along by a waitress — "The kitchen is closing soon!" — when I hadn't ordered dessert by 10 p.m.); Sun., 10 a.m.-10 p.m. | Entrees $19-$27 | Full bar | Valet and street parking