Mari Vanna opens a portal to the Motherland in Dupont

March 21, 2013

Borsch—a beet and assorted vegetable soup with beef—is perhaps the most iconic dish associated with Russian cuisine. Indeed, the image of a wooden spoon resting casually in a steaming bowl of the red staple, along with a surrounding crowd of bustling relatives, is common in the motherland.

Dupont Circle’s Mari Vanna aims to recreate this cozy atmosphere with an establishment boasting traditional décor, the friendliest of staffs, and hearty home-cooked meals that transport patrons to the old country. Of course, a journey into the past is impossible for customers who have never experienced Russia. Even so, Mari Vanna is marked by an unmistakable authenticity anyone can recognize merely upon entering.

From busy Connecticut Ave., Mari Vanna immediately catches the eye with Russian signs, white curtains, and a collection of assorted doorbells lining the doorway. Inside, white chandeliers, wooden support beams, and antique Russian trinkets create a mix of a Soviet apartment and a typical village cottage on the outskirts of Moscow. Peeling wallpaper that occasionally reveals sections of brick wall adds to the immersive experience made deeper by Soviet-era film clips on the flat-screens behind the bar.

As I was enveloped in this warm atmosphere, an overwhelming nostalgia seized me as an iconic song from Irony of Fate, or, Enjoy Your Bath!, a 1975 Mosfilm production shown every New Year on TV channels across Russia, played over the speakers. Vivid memories of sitting at my babushka’s kitchen table watching the classic film as snow fell lightly on the empty, streetlamp-lit world outside flooded my mind, a deluge triggered by none other than the first spoonful of borsch.

The bright red soup was perfect in its distinctly homemade style. Darker shades at times imply improper preparation techniques, but this bowl radiated quality before the initial beet-dominated, carrot-accented taste. Chunks of potato added a hearty texture while chewy pieces of beef contributed occasional bursts of flavor always mildly present in the broth.

Each meal begins with a classic starter of a selection of white and black grain bread, a leek stem, sliced radishes, and salt with sunflower oil for dipping. This fresh assortment, which arrives on a wooden cutting board, accompanies the remainder of the lunch or dinner.

Following the borsch sample, I opted for three pirozhki, pies stuffed with either meat, eggs, or cabbage. The meat-filled pirozhok offered a mild spice that complemented the borsch while the egg-stuffed option presented an even combination of tastes between the still steaming, soft pastry exterior and the finely diced hard-boiled egg inside. The cabbage pirozhok, on the other hand, had a potent sour nature that dominated, but did not overwhelm, the surrounding bread. All three were comfortingly familiar.

Chicken kotletki—cutlets—garnished by warm, creamy mashed potatoes and moderately salty cornichons comprised the entrée. The cutlets themselves were somewhat loosely put together, allowing them to melt in the mouth. A sharp bite of the onions mixed in with the otherwise subdued chicken flavor added contrast to what otherwise could have been a monotonous dish, resulting in a well-constructed and well-rounded main course.

Homemade comforts outside the home do, however, seem to come at a price; the borsch weighs in at $12 and the kotletki cost a full $20. In spite of this arguably significant caveat, the Mari Vanna experience measures up to the high price tag. The staff treats each customer like family; I was even presented with a key to the restaurant’s front door—an honor reserved for a select few—before I returned to the American world outside. Though babushka’s cooking and love are irreplaceable, Mari Vanna is a worthy contender.

Kirill Makarenko
Former Assistant Leisure Editor

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