Mari Vanna

Restaurants , Russian Flatiron
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Mari Vanna
Photograph: Roxana Marroquin
Beef borscht at Mari Vanna

The stateside debut of this Russian chain, named for a mythical babushka known for her hospitality toward strangers, may be the first Manhattan restaurant specifically targeting the Russian community’s new well-heeled middle class. The Flatiron spot trades in both pre- and post-Soviet kitsch—references that might go over your head if you didn’t happen to grow up with a dacha overlooking the Caspian Sea. This chic little export is a fantasy version of that summer cottage, with baskets of apples and gourds inviting you in from the street, places set with lace doilies topped with mismatched china, and food as traditional as the matryoshka dolls, old clocks and jars filled with house-infused vodkas that clutter the decorative wooden shelves. The hip Russian waitress, enthusiastically declaring everything “delicious,” will happily recommend shots to go with the food. Earthy beet vodka is nicely matched to a wide bowl of classic borscht, silky beet soup bearing tender cubed beef. But vodka flavored with oats and honey is a tad too sweet for salmon caviar served with wispy butter-soaked blini. The roe—an affordable alternative to the $195 Russian caviar plate—is theatrically delivered inside the cavity of one of those wooden nesting dolls. The experience is clearly designed to be playful—the food is on par with a flashy Brighton Beach dance hall’s, and not much better than that. The beef in the Stroganoff is more chewy than tender, but the side of mushroom kasha is a nutty treat. Whole trout, stuffed with wine-drunk mushrooms, has a beautiful sear but too much rich cream sauce on top. Desserts—an overly generous whipped-cream and mixed-berry mille-feuille, a sugary homemade marshmallow log with clashing chocolate and mango sauces—are as sickly sweet as the decor. But like an evening out in Russian Brooklyn, at Mari Vanna, you pay for the spectacle as much as for the food.

Venue name: Mari Vanna
Address: 41 E 20th St
New York
Cross street: between Broadway and Park Ave South
Opening hours: Mon, Tue 11:30am–1am; Wed–Fri 11:30am–3am; Sat 10:30am–3am; Sun 10:30am–1am
Transport: Subway: N, R, W, 6 to 23rd St
Price: Average main course: $25. AmEx, Disc, MC, V
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