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Douglas Blyde enjoys the full on Russian experience of vodka cocktails and wines at Mari Vanna

Published:  28 January, 2013

"We'd like to be as much of a cultural destination as a culinary destination," says Anton Efimov, restaurant manager of Mari Vanna's Knightsbridge outpost.

"We'd like to be as much of a cultural destination as a culinary destination," says Anton Efimov, restaurant manager of Mari Vanna's Knightsbridge outpost.

Efimov, who grew up in the Crimea, came to the UK as an intrepid 19 year-old, two decades ago. "I washed plates at Smollensky's on the Strand," he recalls. But in ensuing years, Efimov realised and refined his "speciality" for looking after upmarket guests tempted by London's "late lights", with bar roles at five-star hotels, The Connaught, The Landmark and Raffles. He subsequently oversaw the food and beverage offer at haunt of tabloid celebrities, Chinawhite for 10 years.

Efimov arches his eyebrow, progressively. "Nowadays, nightclubs aren't what they used to be. People are looking for experiences... like at The Box." He prefers, instead, to develop restaurant knowledge. "There are more details in a restaurant; it's more complex. Here, guests are nurtured from the moment we open the door for them, to the moment we close it behind them."

Consequently, Efimov rates the site's unusually elaborate fit - a whimsical, considered, nostalgic pastiche of camp, cosily-homely olde-worlde Russia, realised by designer, Yuna Megre over many months. One wall, left for customers to autograph, allegedly features the hand of Prince William. "The devil's in the detail," says Efimov. "The little things are the hardest."

Working alongside Efimov is bartender, Levente Lavrinyuk, who developed his trade within Hungary's "more relaxed scene," which he describes as two-to-three years behind London," then Asia de Cuba. His specialities are the brightly-flavoured, homemade selection of infused shots based on Russian Standard vodka.

"In the latest Mari Vanna in Washington DC they make 70," he says. "Here, we have 10. But Washington has over 300 covers on three floors." Because of the limitations of London's space, Lacrinyuk must therefore work hard to ensure his selection suits the clientele. As a result, both Efimov and Lavrinyuk have become keen experimenters.

"In small jar formats, we constantly try new infusions," says Lavrinyuk. After observing a lack of sales over a month's trial, the pineapple infusion proved an early casualty, as did the tomato and garlic flavour, which "didn't even get to the customer trial." Although staff liked it, star anise failed to excite the customers. "Usual story!" exclaims Lacrinyuk with half a smile.

The best-sellers are horseradish, made from the cubed root infused at 1kg/five litres of vodka for up to a week, and the version made with bird's eye (Thai) chillies. "More than two days would make it un-drink-ably hot," cautions Lavrinyuk. Next on the agenda is vodka infused with blueberries. "It takes up to two months to realise their potential," he says. Fresh cucumber and dill remains a popular aperitif, while, alongside food, the honey vodka shot works "very well" with Mari Vanna's seven layer tall, signature honey cake.

In addition to the 40% Russian Standard, which Lavrinyuk appraises as "particularly smooth", Mari Vanna's vodka list features picks from all over the world, including French Siroc, distilled from "the same grapes as for Cognac" and high-grade Polish, Konik's Tail. Another drink, offered to me over an earlier dinner by an affable waitresses in arresting, 50s-style pokadot dress, included the originally-titled take on the Metropolitan, the "Maripolitan", featuring sweetened juice (mors) from frozen Russian cranberries.

Efimov arches his eyebrow again when explaining another drink, "Sex On The Birch". "We're good at giving names." Efimov mentions that he wanted to implement a cocktail using birch juice since his days at Chinawhite. The taste of the juice evokes coconut water and elderflower, and in texture proves somewhat lethargic. "Every kid in Russian knows the flavour - and it's part of our job to recreate nostalgia for people," says Efimov. Despite giving drinks original titles (I also clock "Bloody Mari Vanna"), Lavrinyuk mentions that he refuses to tamper with established Russian libations, such as the Black Russian and Moscow Mule.

Efimov also praises the health benefits of sea buckthorn mors. "It's an amazing berry used in Chinese medicine." The taste of the persimmon-coloured liquid flits, pleasantly, between sweetness and bitterness, evoking physallis and ending cleanly.

Vinously, in addition to stocking Russian bins like Alexander II, a sparkling wine from Krasnodar first made for the eponymous Tsar some 160-years-ago, Efimov and Lavrinyuk are very proud of their Georgian selection. In 2006, claiming the presence of metals and pesticides, Russia's health inspector, Gennadiy Onishchenko banned the import of Georgian and Moldovan wines into the country, along with popular brands of Georgian mineral water. "Lots of Russians come here because Georgian wine is not widely available in Russia itself," says Efimov. "We use small private importers like Gaumarjos ( who deliver exceptionally good wine for phenomenal value."

Efimov praises the once beleaguered industry. "The Georgians took a huge step in the last 10 years. I rate earthy, intense varieties like Saperavi, only grown in their special climate; the cradle of wine."

Lunchtime service is about to begin. I sip the last of Guinness-coloured Kvass, a traditional drink made of fermented bread yeast. "Making kvass to the old Slavic recipe is a centuries-old tradition for particularly enthusiastic Russian housewives," says Efimov, raising his glass to mine. "It's our version of Coca Cola," says Efimov. The result is very nearly alcoholic seeming.

Outside the carefully-curated cocoon of compellingly-idealised Russian culture  red buses and black cabs stutter in and out of these metaphorically gold paved streets. Efimov is looking forward to the end of winter. "Every March we gather in Trafalgar Square to bid farewell to winter - the festival of Maslenitsa."

But Efimov has one more point to make. "Whoever comes through this door is somehow linked to Russia. Our role is to introduce local diners to Russian ingredients; what Russians eat at home. Our cuisine not as well promoted as Italian or Chinese. We have entertainment, folk stories, vodka drinking. It's quite an affair! Not to mention Russia's ballet, literature, science, business!"

Plates of patriotism indeed.

Mari Vanna is open midday to midnight every day, for lunch, tea and dinner. It is owned by Moscow-based Ginza Project. Founded in 2003, it now operates over 100 various restaurants, including 40 sushi-cafes in Moscow.Ginza intends to open their sixth Mari Vanna in Los Angeles, followed by another in Europe.

* You can read more from Douglas Blyde at Intoxicating Prose