Imagine a grandmother’s house. Picture the floral prints, lace doilies, 1970s lampshades, and all the framed photographs of Uncle Joe and Cousin Rachel on the walls.
Now imagine throwing a huge party in that house, like if American Pie took place in The Brothers Grimm story universe. But instead of breaking into nana’s cookie jar and sherry stash, you drink carafes of cucumber-dill-infused vodka, and eat borscht and pelmeni dumplings. This is what it’s like to have dinner at Mari Vanna in Flatiron, a party spot with Russian food that’s better than what you might expect from a restaurant with a swing attached to its ceiling.
If you don’t know about Mari Vanna already, it’s probably because you don’t party hard enough and/or you’re not Russian. This place has other locations in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and D.C., and somewhat of a cult following among anyone who has strong feelings toward chicken Kiev. When you’re here, you’re bound to see some bizarre things. A man playing the accordion like it’s 1924. A wooden swing attached to the ceiling. Two stately women in the corner going shot for shot. The Russian version of Pinocchio on TV. A businessman from “out of town” and a woman half his age who is definitely not his wife. It’s not a dinner at Mari Vanna if you don’t see some sh*t.
But of all the diary-worthy details at Mari Vanna, the most prominent is the vodka. It’s as ubiquitous as a temper tantrum at a preschool or a Tarantino film on any man’s top ten movie list. You’ll see it in flights, in carafes, on trays in the air, passing between hands, and, by the end of the night, on your shirt. Mari Vanna makes about ten different house-infused varieties of vodka, the best of which is horseradish. Even if you don’t normally enjoy spicy root vegetables, the freezing shot goes down smoothly. You’ll want to take three of them in ten minutes.
The only thing on Mari Vanna’s menu that’s almost as unavoidable as the vodka is sour cream. All of our favorite dishes have a few dollops on the side. Like the plate of soft blinis with red caviar and house-cured smoked salmon, the savory Siberian pelmeni dumplings filled with both beef and pork, or a borscht that’s best described as soulful. Sour cream aside, Mari Vanna’s food is consistently good, albeit a little expected. You’re here to eat traditional Russian food. And traditional Russian food is what you’ll get.
Like all the best theme restaurants, you should save Mari Vanna for special yet somewhat silly occasions. Be it a birthday dinner with six people, a date night gone rogue, or a night when you decide to drink like you’re being impeached. When all of your coworkers ask what you did over the weekend, just tell them you spent some time at grandmother’s house.
As cold, salty, and intense as your favorite Disney villain. This hits you in the back of the throat. It’s delicious, and easy to drink in large quantities. We’d just suggest reading the prices before you commit as the booze here is expensive.
If you’re trying to decide if Mari Vanna is your spirit restaurant, ask yourself if you’d like to chase a shot of vodka with borscht. And we mean proper borscht. Thin hot broth, incredible beety depth, and some sour cream for richness.
We have an idea for a cardio-strength class that just involves pounding chicken fillets and then rolling them up with butter in Mari Vanna’s kitchen. If you’re interested in seeing what we mean, order the chicken Kiev. Someone worked hard to make this so buttery, fried, and delicious. It shows.
This $39 platter of salmon roe, blinis, and soft smoked salmon feels extravagant in the same way that getting your first car feels extravagant. Sure, there are some Lamborghinis on the menu (the trio of all three black caviars, for instance), but all you really wanted was a navy blue Jetta anyway. This is a lot of fun to eat with a group.
Mari Vanna’s pelmeni look like tiny hats that might be on sale at Reformation at the end of the summer. Each one comes in a thick wrapper covered in dill sprigs and filled with spiced beef and pork. You’ll want to eat an entire cauldron of them.
The wrapper of the vareniki dumpling tastes similar to that of the pelmeni but this one is crescent-shaped. These are filled with mashed potatoes and caramelized onions, and we’d happily buy them frozen at Trader Joe’s.