From Afghanistan to Zambia via Jamaica and Montenegro join Fork and Flag for an epic voyage around the world on a culinary journey through London town. Forget expensive flights, carbon guilt and irksome visa regulations. Trade timezones for tube zones and sample 111 countries through the eclectic cuisine, eccentric waiters, eye-watering decor and evocative entertainment of its restaurants

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Russia



Restaurant: Mari Vanna

Location: Knightsbridge

By Boeing: 931 miles

By Boris Bike: 5 miles


London has proved a popular destination for Russian oligarchs seeking a respectable refuge in the west. Rich from the shamelessly shady deals that saw state owned resources sold off to friends and accomplices when Russia embraced capitalism, they now make up a significant proportion of the city’s super-rich. They have tended to gravitate towards the Georgian Grandeur of West London, and Knightsbridge is a favoured haunt. Harrods provides them with ample opportunity to flaunt their ostentatious wealth and new money is always drawn to where the old was made. Though they seem immediately at home ensconced in a life of privileged excess Mari Vanna, just a hundred yards away, caters for those yearning for the old country.



Mari Vanna intrigues. And in a city so densely populated with chain restaurants and precision branding that is a very welcome attribute. There is no aspiration here to be understated or minimalist. Outside the restaurant the pavement suddenly succumbs to an eruption of huge potted plants and a shabby-chic chinzitised old bicycle leaning against them. The awnings above confirm you’ve arrived and suggest a Parisian style of the Belle Époque. After climbing a few stairs and entering the restaurant it feels like you’ve unwittingly trespassed into a film set of a sub-titled BBC4 costume drama. Every conceivable surface is dressed and every corner cluttered with pictures, porcelain and paraphernalia. If it didn’t serve food it could make ends meet as a museum of Russian curiosities. Not being Russian the cultural montage wasn’t imbued with meaning as I’m sure it is for émigrés’, but collectively they give an impression of a proud, agrarian nation with a strong sense of identity and respect for tradition.



The eyes widen upon entering the dining room itself, a grand and unashamedly opulent space. With the high ceilinged grandeur of a stately banqueting hall and the soft luxury and decadent detail of a boudoir it is perhaps too brash and self-aggrandising for sober British tastes but remains welcoming despite its ardent desire to make a statement. The chairs look like they’ve been hired from the Hermitage and huge chandeliers sparkle in your eyeline as you try and take it all in. Lining the room are white dressers and glass fronted cupboards all rammed to the gunnels with babushka dolls and ceremonial crockery. Each, no doubt, have a story to tell about old Russia and its people before the soviet era stripped all such trappings away. You get the feeling those dining at the restaurant would rather the time between the czars and the oligarchs was wiped from history.

Ever seeking intrigue I order birch water to begin. I’m told Madonna and Gwyneth drink it while resting hot cups on their backs. The waitress appears surprised and when I take a sip I understand why. It must be the sensation that greets aardvarks as they slide their tongues into trunks, sweet but undeniably woody. It may well have health benefits, but then so does scaling mountains at dawn.

The menu is designed for the indulgent, generous host. And being Knightsbridge there are many extravagances that can make the credit card turn pale. Shots of vodka for £315 or 28 grams of caviar for £75 to name but two. It is designed as a feasting menu, a bit like tapas but with full size portions. It is the antipathy of frugal, the feast laid out on the table in keeping with the feast for the eyes of the enveloping décor. In Russia and the Urals there is a tradition for long feasts stretching into the morning with friends and families. Us British of course like to eat, pay and leave with as little fuss or delay as possible. At least an older generation does.

Neither having the budget nor the assembled company for such a feast we settle on some pierogi to start. Having sampled a few already on this journey, notably for Poland, I wondered how these with assorted fillings of cheese and meat would justify their premium prices. The answer was an impeccable glaze. You could adjust your quiff in them such was their immaculate shine. Lovers of fish would have salivated at the main course options but alas a baked sturgeon isn’t for me. I opted for a rather contrived dish of pork fritters that didn’t live long in the memory, though that is more a comment on an uninspired selection rather than the food on offer. To lift the spirits I then tried an herb tea: Thyme as I recall. Very simple to recreate at home with simply a kettle and the herb cupboard. But I’m grateful for the inspiration.