'While the place is a wonder, the food lived up to my preconceptions of lacking flavour'

Mari Vanna

Open daily midday–midnight

Ooh a themed restaurant! I like a theme. Done well, themed places can kid you into thinking that you’ve visited another country without having to endure jet lag or boring airports. We’re going to Russia with Mari Vanna, which in my mind immediately meant vodka. We’ll get to that soon enough. Stepping away from the bottlenecked traffic that One Hyde Park has created, you’re instantly transported into a fairytale. There are coat hooks and dressers, crowds of photo frames with Russian relatives looking serious on the walls and naturally, Russian dolls. Their website says it’s meant to look like an archetypal Russian home. If that’s the case, Russians are big on chandeliers. A waitress will definitely appear before you’ve had a chance to choose any food, as you’ll spend the first 15 minutes trying to take everything in.

Choose carefully – there is a lot to eat and the menu runs to ten pages. Forshmak (£6), a cold herring and apple mixture, was a little like a fish pâté; fresh, cold and moreish on the toasted black Russian bread. Oladushki (£13) were light and crunchy courgette fritters served with smoked salmon and sour cream, the kind of thing that would make for a great breakfast. Pirogi (£3 each) were much less interesting, if surprisingly light. They look like mini pasties and tasted boring compared to their Cornish cousins. Mixed pickles (£9) offered mixed pleasures – the sauerkraut was wonderfully tart and crunchy but cold, slimy shitakes hit a bum note.

Despite the fantastic room and beautiful staff, the atmosphere was a little subdued at Sunday lunchtime. We’d been out the night before so 1pm felt too close to breakfast and maybe it’s the same for the Russians. The only other diners were a Hollywood good-looking Russian family and a couple of ladies having tea.

Up next were Pelmeni (dumplings, £13) which turned up with too much water at the bottom of the bowl and the minced beef and pork inside badly needed more seasoning or spice, as they were disappointingly bland. Veal fillet frikadellers (minced meat dumplings, £18) were just ok, no more interesting than a kofte or lamb burger. Smetannik (£7) however, was a great dessert cake.

So while the place is a wonder, the food lived up to my preconceptions of lacking flavour. And when you get the bill, you’ll know you’re in Knightsbridge. Our little eggcup-sized shots of vodka were £10 each and the price of the bottles is eye-watering. Still, it’s a Knightsbridge rent they’re paying and the decor alone must have cost a small fortune. Despite the cost, I’d return to try some of the other menu choices as the place is so damn charming and for the time being at least, it’s cheaper than a flight to Moscow.

Lunch for two with a couple of drinks and service £147.

Mari Vanna, 116 Knightsbridge, SW1X; www.marivanna.co.uk

Restaurants |