Sunday, July 28, 2013

Mari Vanna - 07/26/2013

8475 Melrose Pl
West Hollywood, CA 90069
(323) 655-1977

I'll be the first to admit that my selection in restaurants tends to gravitate towards certain types of cooking. That said I am always up for something new; so when one of my friends suggested that we pop our Russian cherry the newly opened Mari Vanna, I was more than game. Run by the Ginza Project, Mari Vanna's LA outpost is the group's sixth restaurant overall and third in the United States. Russian food doesn't enjoy the popularity of some other cultures, but Tatiana Brunetti, one of the partners involved with the project, hopes that the chain can help redefine Russian cuisine in the US, a lofty goal, to be sure.

Housed in the same space that once played host to Bastide, the restaurant has undergone a drastic facelift. Designed to mimic homey warmth of a traditional Russian home, the restaurant is filled with various Russian tchotchkes and knick knacks; a far cry from its days when it stood as one of the last bastion's of fine dining in Los Angeles.

Olivier Salad - Melange of Roasted Vegetables, Pickles, Hard Boiled Eggs, and a Touch of Mayonnaise
The Olivier Salad is one of Mari Vanna's signature dishes, a gentrified take on potato salad, the creamy mixture of vegetables has a very satisfying feel coupled with a slight smoky-sweet flavor. Though a bit simple, this was my favorite of the cold appetizers.

Herring under a Fur Coat (Shuba) - Layers of herring, Potatoes, Carrots, Beets and Onions Topped with Egg with a touch of mayonnaise
We were originally going to order the pickled herring but this sounded so much more interesting. The herring immediately makes its presence felt with a pungent fishiness on the attack but the "fur coat" quickly moderates the fish thanks to the sweetness of the carrots and beets.

Chicken Kholodetz - Chicken Aspic served with Horseradish, pickles and spicy Russian Mustard
This dish looks like a bunch of shredded chicken sandwiched between two slices of jello. The chicken was decent if a bit simple, but the aspic doesn't have much flavor to speak of making the bites of flavorless goo a bit tedious. The Russian mustard certainly lives up to its billing, and while it packs plenty of flavor the sheer intensity obliterates any taste of chicken.

Homemade Assorted Meat Plate - Roasted Pork Loin, Chicken Roulette, and Beef Filet
The chicken was my favorite of the trio thanks to its keen peppery bite. The pork and beef both needed a bit more flavor, though the filet did remind me of the sliced beef served with the cold cut plate at Chinese banquets.

Fish Plate - House Cured Salmon, Cold Smoked Paddlefish and House Smoked Sturgeon
A complete 180 from the meat plate, the cured fishes were chock full of smoky goodness. I started with the cured salmon, supple and lithe, the cure resonates when taken with a light squeeze of lemon juice. The paddle fish has a denser texture than the salmon and its oily heft was reminiscent of a Amberjack though the woody savor marks the fish as something else entirely.. The sturgeon was my favorite of the trio, drier and more substantial than the salmon or paddlefish; the meat had a tautness to it combined with a concentrated smokey flavor reminded me of a fish bacon.

Rosolnic Soup - Chicken Barley soup with Potatoes, Onions, Carrots, Pickles, Garnished with fresh dill, sour cream on the side
Traditional Rosolnic soup is made from a broth of pickled cucumbers. Mari Vanna's preparation seems to fall more in line with a homemade chicken noodle soup; hearty, warm, and satisfying with a tinge of sour herbaceousness from the dill. Taken with some sour cream the soup picks up a bit more body as well as a ephemeral but enjoyable twang. Though we initially found the sour cream a bit odd, all of us agreed that the dish was better with it.

Roasted Cornish Hen - Topped with garlic and served with pickled cabbage
The hen was one of the surprises of the night. Beneath the slightly dry looking skin lurked a deceptively succulent bird just waiting to be devoured. The meat wasn't just tender and juicy, but laden with flavor more akin to quail or squab then mere chicken. Meanwhile, the crunch and tang of the pickled cabbage provided a wonderful counterpoint to the rich bird

Sunny - Seaberry Martini | House Infused Seaberry Vodka, St. Germain Elder Flower, Fresh Lime Juice, Fresh Orange Juice
Klubnichka - Strawberry Martini | House Infused Strawberry Vodka, Strawberry Puree, Fragoli, Fresh Lime Juice
Grusha - Pear Martini | House Infused Pear Vodka, St. Germain Elder Flower, Pear Puree, Fresh Lime Juice, Splash of Sparkling Wine
There was some confusion with our drink order which resulted in a bit of delay before we received our initial cocktails. I was expecting the martinis to be on the stiff side but aside from the Seaberry Martini, we could barely taste the alcohol. The seaberry martini looked and tasted like a bitter orange martini; apparently seaberry is naturally astringent and has 15 times the Vitamin C of an orange. The strawberry and pear varieties both tasted like intensely ripe versions of their respective fruits and even the non-drinker at the table enjoyed both these cocktails.

Handmade Veal Pelmeni - Russian Dumplings, Topped with Herbs, Butter and served with Sour Cream
The veal dumplings were a gift from the kitchen though we would have ordered them in due time. Wrapped in a lissome wrapper, the veal has a rich gamey tang; the resulting combination reminded me of xiao long bao only without the soup. As with the Rosolnic soup, the sour cream adds an extra layer of complexity to the dish. I have to say Russian cuisine has opened my eyes to the utility of sour cream.

Ukranian Borscht with Pompushka
I ordered this despite my avowed dislike for beets, because surely no foray into Russian cuisine would be complete without a bowl of borscht. The soup comes in two main varieties, hot and cold that share little in common besides the use of beets. Mari Vanna offers a faithful rendition of the more popular hot variety made from a rich beef broth filled with chopped potatoes, beets, carrots and other vegetables. The result is a hearty mixture we likened to a bowl of Campbell's vegetable soup laced with a touch of fresh dill. The soup came with two pieces of pompushka or garlic bread; buttered and topped with fresh garlic, I wanted a whole bowl of these babies.

Blini with Red Caviar - 50 grams
If there is anything synonymous with luxury in Russian cuisine its caviar. The red caviar looks and feels similar to salmon roe commonly found at sushi restaurants, but has a much deeper brine similar to Sujiko, the less common marinated salmon roe. The blinis were less like the typical potato cakes and more akin to crepes with a simultaneously yeasty and sweet flavor that lingered long after the caviar.

House Infused Vodka - Pepper, Olive, Pineapple, Lingberry, Seaberry, Apricot
In true Russian fashion, vodka is featured prominently on the drink menu with 18 flavors all made from Russian Standard Vodka. We were planning to order a few but our server brought out complimentary sextet for us to try. The pepper proved to be my favorite with a vegetal jalepeno-like spice to mask the burn of the vodka. The Olive was like a very dirty martini bursting with earthy brine. After the earlier cocktails I was expecting the fruit infused vodkas to be on the sweet side but they all had a fair amount of boozy warmth tinged with a variety of moderating fruit.

Kalinka - Malinka Martini - House Infused Raspberry Vodka, White Peach Puree, Fresh Lime Juice, Fresh Raspberries
Moscow Mojito - House Infused Honey and Oats Vodka, Mint, Fresh Lime Juice, Aged Dark Rum, Splash of Sprite
Lolita Apricot - Martini - House Infused Apricot Vodka, Vanilla Black Tea Syrup and Fresh Lemon Juice
Our second round of drinks brought more syrupy sweet cocktails. The Kalinka-Malinka starts with ripe peach then transitions to tart raspberries and finishes with a boozy heat. The Mojito tasted of fresh lime and mint; classic, but I was hoping for the honey and oat vodka to show through. The Lolita Apricot was the table favorite, as sweet as its namesake but with a streak of adult sophistication from the vanilla black tea syrup.

Chicken Kotletki - Pan Seared Chicken Patties Served with Potato Puree
My friends dubbed the kotletki: gourmet chicken nuggets. Though not breaded and deep fried, the ground chicken conveyed a deep umami savor while the potatoes provided a nice starchy compliment to the meat.

Beef Stroganoff - Thinly Sliced Filet Mignon in a Light Sour Cream Sauce, Fresh Thyme, Pickles and Potato Puree
My previous experience with Beef Stroganoff was limited to frozen dinners like Lean Cuisine and its ilk. This was a refreshing change of pace, the beef was tender but a bit overcooked still quite nice with the sour cream sauce to heighten the meaty twang of the filet. While the meat was enjoyable, I actually preferred the potatoes with their fluffy consistency and buttery heft.

Assorted Pirozjki - Beef, Cabbage, or Rice, Egg and Scallion
We finished the dinner with a trio of Piroziki. Each bun had a different filling but for me the best part was the bread, sweet, yeasty and fragrant the various fillings were enjoyable but not particularly distinctive.

Birds Milk - Traditional Russian Dessert, very light sponge cake covered in melted dark chocolate
Our server described Bird's Milk (Ptasie mleczo), a classic Russian dessert, as a combination of sponge cake and marshmallow. The confection had a flavor akin to nougat with the spongy consistency and a decadent bitterness from the melted chocolate.

Medovic - Traditional Russian Honey Cake
Though I tend to shun heavy desserts this was quite enjoyable. Spongy and thick, the cake was redolent of honey tinged with ripe fruit.

House Infused Vodka - Pear
I have to say our server knows what hes doing. The previous vodkas tended towards the savory but this was ripe and sweet, the perfect finish to my first Russian dinner.

I was a bit concerned that the blunt flavors would be a bit much for a palate honed on a steady diet of Japanese and French cuisine, but instead I found the simplicity enjoyable. The food was heavy at times but with plenty of familiar analogues it was more approachable than I expected. With no previous frame of reference, I can't compare Mari Vanna to the city's other Russian restaurants, but if this is what Russian cuisine has to offer it certainly deserves more prominence than it currently receives.


gourmetpigs said...

I wasn't sure what to expect from this place, I kept hearing about their late night karaoke so I'm glad to see the food looks promising (and not karaoke-fare :p)

Epicuryan said...

Good point about the karoke. I forgot to mention that the restaurant spontaneously breaks into song though the karaoke seems confined to what was bastides private dining room

Jaime said...

Awesome review! I've been looking for a Russian restaurant since I saw the banquet scene in Eastern Promises.

Darin said...

Great to see a play-by-play of this place...I will admit I don't know much of Russian cuisine either.

LOL'd at the whole karaoke part.

Sam C. said...

Kareoke in a restaurant? That's hilarious...they should do a chefs nights with chefs going at it. :) [like belly Q in Chicago]

Epicuryan said...


Who knows they might already do that, but just keep it hidden from us non-chefs.