Having heard many great things about a horseradish vodka based brunch Bloody Mary, I was excited to visit Mari Vanna near DuPont Circle last week. I knew their infused vodkas were popular around town, but I honestly never expected them to be paired with Russian food that kept it so dang real. Because while some parts of Russian culture have been embraced internationally – rabbit fur ushankas, babushka dolls on doilies, and that throaty female accent so alluring to foreign ears – there are some aspects of the cuisine which are not quite so readily accepted. Jiggly aspics of meat and vegetables conforming to the shape of the bowl they were cooled in have always brought tearful nostalgia out of me personally, but they are not easy to get used to without having grown up with one’s grandma laying porcelain bowls of the stuff out onto the windowsill on cool winter nights. Likewise, chilled fruit soups and sour cream as a condiment throws some people off a bit, as does the normalcy of using tongue or brain in place of a loin or filet. And while Mari Vanna doesn’t go quite as far as some of the traditional items I’ve had at the Russian Bazaar in Boston, their creamy stuff is unappologetically creamy and the flavors I prize so much in simple, hearty, Russian comfort food shine through, past all the splendor of a DuPont Circle location.
The place itself is great too. Three floors, each slightly different, with the first being very social, the second (a patio overlooking the first) a bit more intimate, and the third a spacious loft perfect for larger, more rambunctious crowds. All sorts of Russian trinkets adorn shelves and the walls are painted with floral motifs. Rustic, serf-chic elements combine with velvety, regal reminders of Russian aristocracy. Disco balls and club music throw things off a bit in the upstairs space, but in a way that I think is an even better representation of authentic Russian culture – even the overstated elements of design are overstated in a way that Russians themselves appear overstated to those with a more modest style. Giant jugs of colorful vodkas in the process of being infused line the staircase. Seats are either elaborately painted wooden chairs or comfy, squishy couches and sofas to recline on. They tease with the silent suggestion of a post-meal nap.
I met both Executive Chef Azamat Zhanizakov, originally from Kazakhstan, and Manager Victor Starodubcevas and I drilled them a bit on what they thinks of Russian food and its place in the DC food scene. I got the answers I was hoping for. It’s not really meant to be hip and cool, but designed to make one feel at ease. The goal is to make guests want to stay around longer, eat their food more slowly and appreciate whomever they’re with. As I learned, the Kardashians recently dined at the location in Los Angeles, so I guess they’re doing pretty well on the trend front as well. I’m very glad to see this balanced so nicely with authenticity.
I swear I only asked to try a single shot of their famed horseradish vodka, but ended up with a ginormous tray of multicolored infusions. Russian hospitality. As I had places to be later that night, I didn’t mind the excess. Most notable for me were the savory ones – the horseradish being my favorite, followed closely by cucumber-dill. Fruit infusions included cherry, blackcurrant, strawberry, sea berry, cranberry, apricot and pineapple. These are all made using Russian Standard vodka, with which Mari Vanna has set up very good relations. I really enjoyed the horseradish and cucumber-dill varieties, because the flavors in these were well-rounded, showing off the vegetal quality of the infusor as well as the dominant heat or floral tones (respectively) that were expected upon the first sip. I also liked some of the tarter, less sticky-sweet fruit infusions, particularly the blackcurrant. The latter had a wonderful flavor unique to that fruit and reminded me of my grandfather’s jet-black, homemade blackcurrant syrup that he would mix into homemade seltzer on hot summer days.
An excellent start to a meal at Mari Vanna is one of their Blinis, which come with sour cream and a choice of either ground beef, mushrooms, cured salmon or salmon roe. I decided to go with the most simple and classic version, big beautiful orange beads that burst forth a tangy saline brine that got absorbed and projected onto the blank canvas of the fluffy sour cream. I appreciated the details in presentation – a bit of lemon pepper (or something similar) sprinkled over the cream and a bright green sprig of dill atop the caviar, which added a wonderful fresh, floral flavor to the bite. The motion of ladling a bit of sour cream and caviar from a crystal bowl onto the thin, buttery crepe using a delicate silver spoon somehow fit well into the atmosphere of the place. A lighthearted dish with great, simple flavors. Although I’m not usually a huge fan of dumplings as the sticky, glutenous texture coating the outside is not to my personal taste, I was pleasantly surprised by the Handmade Veal Pelmeni. The stuffed little baskets of dough were served in a pretty little earthenware pot. When I lifted the heavy lid, a powerful wave of hot steam with a strong dill and parsley aroma hit my nose and had an immediate and very strong effect on me. It placed me gently back in my grandmother’s kitchen and reminded me of the steam wafting off her soups and stews as she pushes a wooden spoon towards my mouth, asking me to identify what’s missing. It comforted and warmed me up, making me excited to bite into the plump lumps of chewy dough. As I did, a juicy, moist filling of minced veal gushed out, the savory broth running up the side of my tongue and coating it with flavor. The filling had a great texture, left chunky enough to enjoy the meat for what it is and for it to contrast wonderfully with the gummy, soft coating. A bit like a xiao long bao, but with a slightly deeper meat flavor lifted up by the soapy freshness of dill and parsley. As I took pictures and chatted away with my dinner companions, the steam from the pot disappeared and the pelmeni actually cooled down before I got to take my first bite. I really appreciated that our server noticed the situation and promptly appeared table-side to ask whether he should bring out a fresh pot of hot dumplings. If only to soak up those first few vodka shots, I highly recommend not skipping these delicious little pockets of meat. There are some flavor and texture combinations that seem perfectly natural in some parts of the world but which make virtually no sense to those who did not grow up with them. In Russian cuisine the concept of a salad differs massively from leafy green lettuce and tomato with clean vinegar-based dressing. Salat means a mezclage of chopped up fresh and cooked vegetables coated in and bound by either oil, sour cream or mayonnaise. It’s spooned out of a thick crystal bowl and plopped in a goopy, amorphous pile next to a slice of schnitzel or a few cabbage pirozhki. Perhaps the most unusual variety is the Shuba (“Herring Under a Fur Coat“) which is a cold layered salad with finely chopped pickled herring, roasted carrots, boiled potatoes, slivers of beet, a generous amount of mayo mixed in and some egg white and egg yolks sprinkled over the top. It’s a moist, mushy mouthful but one with a great variety of textures bound together by the creamy mayonnaise. The first flavor I picked up on was a sweet one from the beet “coat,” which blended nicely with the mild acidity of the mayonnaise. The herring was salty and slightly metallic, with a strong fishy flavor that was also curbed a bit by the sweetness of the beets. Since the herring had been chopped pretty finely it didn’t really stand out in texture but just contributed its flavor to the rest of the soft, moist salad. The bits of potato and carrot added a nice bite, while the egg over the top made the thing even more decadent. I would still say I prefer my pickled herring plain or on a piece of dark rye toast, though this is definitely a very colorful and interesting combination of ingredients that do complement each other quite nicely. One of the most well known Russian salads is the Olivier Salad, made with cubes of bologna, cold boiled potato, dill pickle and carrots and some peas mixed with mayonnaise, a few egg halves lain over the top as a garnish. In this case quail eggs were used to make the dish a bit more gourmet. Otherwise it was very similar to my grandmother’s mayo-based chopped vegetable salad, which also incorporates corn. I thoroughly enjoyed this dish as it stayed very authentic and didn’t try to clean itself up for an American crowd. I guess it’s not too different from a Southern style, chilled, mayo-based potato salad but with a more interesting mix of ingredients. The cubes of spud were nice and firm but softened to the bite, whereas the bologna was a bit more gummy and elastic in texture. The raw carrots were a bit harder and stayed crisp, providing some snap to a salad which was otherwise uniformly moist and lumpy. The pickles also added a great little crunch and a tangy acidity, which helped cut the fattiness of the mayonnaise. Plenty of fresh parsley were sprinkled on for an added boost of freshness. Another very comforting and authentic dish. Maybe even better than Bazaar’s version, made with veal tongue. And then there was the ultimate Russian salad, the famous Vinegret, made with little cubes of beet, potato, carrot, pickled cucumber, peas and (I think) some onion. The ingredients were all pretty much homogenous in size and there was a fair ratio of them so that not one texture dominated. The sweet and then mineral flavors of the beets did take over a bit, making this dish a very earthy and humble one, but these flavors were well balanced with the tang from the pickled cucumber chunks in there as well. The grittiness of the cold boiled potato offset the slippery smooth surface of the beet, while the peas acted as tight little bombs that bursted forth their mushy interior when bitten into. The slightly tough carrots added some firmness as they did in the Olivier. In this case it was sunflower oil that played the role of a binder, picking up the flavors of the beet and the cucumber and coating the other ingredients with these flavors as well. Vinegret is truly a beautiful dish by my standards – the deep purple of the beet dyes the potato chunks to different shades of pink, while the peas peak out from among the other veggies, glistening bright green. Cool, chunky and complex enough in flavor to satisfy on its own. An earthy and healthful delight.
Mari Vanna has earned its great reputation fair-and-square. From what I can tell based on my experience at the DC location, they serve real (but like real-real) Russian classics without cutting corners or sacrificing authenticity for popularity. The place reaches out to the DC dine-out crowd with its beautiful, spacious and very comfortable interior, draws them in with smooth vodka infusions, keeps them there with wonderful babushka-style home cooking, compels them to return with friendly, hospitable service. I will for sure be back to try the hot borscht on a cool winter day, as well as their signature beef stroganoff with buckwheat grechnevaya kasha, which I saw circulating a few times, looking creamy and savory and very much like the real thing.