Mari Vanna is in Knightsbridge, near those pale loitering houses that would be ripped up if only their owners could pay off the council, to be replaced with giant Barratt Homes, with Homes, or maybe Barratt, wrought in gold. The grotesque Candy & Candy development by Hyde Park, all man-of-steel strut, gazes at Harvey Nichols the way a troll stares at a baby. This is the land of basement swimming pools and female sorrow, Lamborghinis, fat teenagers, domestic slavery, tyrants going shopping, and Louis Vuitton bags for dogs. Saddam Hussein would love it.
In the midst of this nightmare, Mari Vanna sits like a dollhouse on the road to Kensington. Most new London restaurants are dark, glittering puddles, full of refugees from yacht adverts, pure Weimar Republic chic, but depoliticised, which leaves — what? Ashtrays. Mari Vanna is altogether more joyful and bright. It is an exploded gay Russian, an homage to painted furniture, porcelain ducks, chandeliers, nameless things in bottles, and doilies. If Barbie Dolls were invented by Tolstoy, they would live, shag and die in Mari Vanna, all the time playing with their accessories. It must be a nightmare to dust, the run-for-profit tearoom of an insane witch addicted to Swan Lake and cucumbers.
It is an oligarch haunt. To prove it, they have giant fat-people chairs wrought in reinforced chintz. They have stuck an enormous television in the equally confused basement, where they are playing a football match because take away the stolen money, and oligarchs are just lads from the East — their pleasures are simple. I wonder if the TV was ordered with some madman’s entrée: ‘Courgette pancake and high-definition TV to play football match.’ We sit upstairs, where I spot the significant tell of the very smart restaurant, doilies or no — stools for handbags. The only other place I have seen it is in Alain Ducasse in Monaco, where they do 14 types of bread roll and the waiters bow like left-wing actors meeting royalty. This may sound insane to you and me, but you are probably a man and I do not have a £10,000 handbag. One could be mistaken for a flat, blue snake. The handbag women are exquisitely beautiful, blonde, glowing dolls, full of health and strength. The men are not. They look like football managers. Their faces are huge.
The menu is a long love-letter to the motherland, probably longer and more loving for being so far away, because I never ate this well in St Petersburg. When Russian food is cooked well, it is divine, but when badly, it is the most inedible cuisine on earth, because it is so herring-centric. Mari Vanna has a twin in New York, which does well, and so does this. Most of all, memories of the staff canteen at the Mariinsky theatre, where I ate rubber fish with exhausted violinists, are erased. The bread is a miracle, dense, sour lumps, designed to suck up fat. Beef Stroganoff looks disgusting, but it tastes wonderful, even if the buckwheat it arrives with tastes of mud. The herring with boiled potatoes is strong, clean, and makes me think of Danish horror films. The pirogi, a kind of Russian Cornish pasty, has a dark sugary case and intense, livid meat — fabulous.
The other problem is the cured bacon dripping and smoke pork loin. ‘It’s lard,’ says the waiter, who is fake-relaxed and cheeky, with so many hot chicks around. I order it anyway, fancying it is some kind of sausage, and wish I hadn’t. It is ten curls of alien white matter, which manages to taste both profoundly smooth and repulsively stringy. A crumbling, creamy almost too-sweet honey cake saves the day. I like this restaurant. I am sure this is a joke on the crabby English, but it feels almost too dreamlike to live.
Mari Vanna, 116 Knightsbridge, London, tel: 020 7225 3122.