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An unforgettable dinner at Mari Vanna

  • Restaurant  Mari Vanna
  • Cuisine  Russian
  • Location  41 E. 20th St. (between Broadway and Park Avenue South), Manhattan 
  • Phone  212-777-1955
  • Directions  Hopstop
  • Atmosphere  romantic, transporting, shabby chic, feminine
  • Attire  business casual
  • Ideal for  small groups, 1x1, romantic dates, bridal showers, baby showers, meet-the-parents
  • Price  moderate

Quietly located in the middle of E. 20th Street sits Mari Vanna, one of Manhattan's most unique, charming, and delicious "hidden" gems. 

You may initially have assumed that the name, "Mari Vanna," was more of a play on the infamous 7-leaved, smokable green than that of a Russian restaurant.  Don't feel bad.  I did too.  And to be honest with you, had I known that Mari Vanna, located merely blocks from my apartment, was serving up traditional Russian fare, I would have tried it long ago.  Unfortunately, I just could not get past that name.

Having dated a Russian gent a couple of years ago - and being half Russian, myself - I am somewhat familiar with the country's less-than-stellar cuisine...and the added "cheese" factor that, more often than not, comes in the form of shiteous decor and techno music (atleast from what I've seen, first-hand, at many of Brighton Beach's finest).  My experience at Mari Vanna, however, transformed my previously questionable opinion of the flavors of my homeland...

When I arrived at MV (Mari Vanna), I was completely taken aback by the shabby chic, casually-ornate, antique-French decor.  "This is absolutely gorgeous," I gushed, after being greeted by the friendly hostess.   

Charm oozes from every crevice at Mari VannaAs the hostess led me towards my table, I couldn't help but notice picture frames reading, "Waiting for so-and-so," adorning many of the tabletops.  I chalked it up to "VIP reservations," until I saw one that read, "Waiting for Ceci," which happened to be the name of my dinner date. 

"We do this (picture-framed names) for all of our reservations," the hostess informed me, in her thick Russian accent.  How incredibly special!

"This place is awesome!"  Ceci squealed as she plopped down in to her chair.  Just as we began to flip through the food, wine, and infused vodka menus, we were presented with a small parchment paper-topped butcher board that was anointed with sliced raisin and wheat bread, radish quarters, a green onion sprig, a pinch of sea salt, and a duo of butters: one plain, and the other dilled.

After receiving our beverages - glass of red wine for me, honey-oat house-infused vodka for Ceci - we came to the mutual decision that we would split multiple plates.

Lemon & artichoke salad

Just when I was about to ask, "Ceci, remind me again W H Y we ordered an Italian-influenced salad at a Russian restaurant?..." I took my first bite.  Thinly-sliced artichoke, lemon zest, olive oil, freshly-ground black pepper, and shaved parmesan cheese came together brilliantly in this fresh, summery concoction of market greens. 

This also happened to be one of the appetizer "specials" of the evening. 

Mushroom Blinis

A "blini" is Russia's version of the French crepe, or a thin pancake, which can be filled with a plethora of different ingredients.  This is a dish that I grew up eating - aside from the fact that my family served sweet, not savory, blinis.  So, when I saw that MV's menu offered a variety of blini fillings, I told Ceci that we must sample at least one.  We settled on mushroom which, we decided, was the perfect segway between bland (cottage cheese filling) and too authentic (smoked salmon filling).

The blini, itself, was dense and thicker than those that I've had in the past.  It had a mildly sweet aftertaste.  The filling contained sauteed, sliced mushrooms that were not bound together by another agent, which I liked.  Paired with the cool sour cream, the trio of components (blini, mushroom filling, sour cream) made for one incredibly delicious and texturally exciting bite. 


This "Georgian-style cheese pie" tasted just as fantastic - if not even more so - than it looked (pictured above), if you can believe that.  Enveloped within a flakey, buttery, paper-thin crust was an overabundance of warm, gooey mozzarella and manouri (similar in consistency to a dry ricotta) cheeses.  Ceci and I finished every last crumb.


The "pelmeni" is Russia's version of tortellini/dumplings.  Ceci and I ordered MV's handmade veal pelmeni, which arrived in a soup bowl under the skirt of a traditionally-dressed Russian doll.  The dumplings sat in a shallow broth and came topped with a delicate sprig of fresh dill; sour cream was served as an accompaniment.   "These remind me of my Italian Grammy's homemade chicken tortellini!"  Ceci gushed. 


My dinner at MV was one of the most pleasantly surprising and special meals that I've had in recent memory.  The food was comforting, homemade, fresh, and prepared with highest of quality ingredients, which is not something that I've been particularly used to from my prior Russian dining experiences.  The service was incredibly warm, welcoming and, most importantly, non-intimidating.  But it was the atmosphere at MV that really stole the show: I cannot wait to recommend this restaurant to friends and readers who are looking for a special place to have an intimate brunch, a small wedding/baby shower, or even just a romantic date. 


Until we eat again,

The Lunch Belle

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