We are used to restaurant chains these days (it seems there is a BLT-something in every town, no?), but one doesn't expect Moscow to be the originator. Mari Vanna, however, is a (relatively high-end) chain from Moscow and St. Petersburg (there are also branches in New York and L.A.). Despite a recent positive review in the Washington Post, my expectations were not set all that high (it is a chain and I'm not a huge Tom Sietsema fan). I have to say, though, that everything we ordered was solidly good. Most Russian food doesn't feature complex spicing or many tricky techniques, but that doesn't mean it can't be done badly and this was good food. We shared the cold eggplant rolls (a Georgian cousin of Italy's eggplant rolatini, with a garlicky walnut-cheese filling), mushroom blini, and potato vareniki (think: ravioli). Everything was good and filling - three appetizers plus the generous bread plate (which includes radishes, green onions, and salt and sunflower oil for dipping (not as good as olive oil, but when in Rome....)) left two diners very full. On the night we visited, Mari Vanna was having a beer festival (I don't quite see how cheap beer is a festival) - my German enjoyed his Russian beer, but I wasn't so thrilled with my Georgian wine (generally the case with Georgian wine in my experience, but I thought maybe in a more upscale place???). Overall, the food was good enough to make me willing to go back, especially in colder weather as the food is rather hearty.
What I didn't love about Mari Vanna was the ambiance. I found the place a little heavy on the country kitch, which doesn't come across as remotely authentic. Also, does anybody like Russian pop music? Mostly though, the staff was a little too authentic for me. I'm sure if I were on anybody's radar, I'd get flak for this (deservedly, I guess), but I am not a fan of the infamous surly Russian attitude. Our waitress was sporting this with a thin veneer of American manners, and I would personally prefer not to experience this element of Russian culture ever. The waitresses also sport these short calico numbers, which are just awful. Despite the solid food, I would probably walk a block or so to any number of equally good restaurants where my waitress is not an ice princess in a slutty Little House on the Prairie costume. A matter of opinion, I suppose (and not all that slutty by Russian standards, I know....), but this is my blog, so there you go. Maybe in winter, the uniforms are longer?