Now Playing

The supremely moist, cream-filled Napoleon dessert.

From Russia, With Love

by Lesley Balla | Photography by Anais + Dax | Angeleno magazine | October 21, 2013

Minutes after we sit down with friends at Mari Vanna, the staff bounds into the tchotchke-filled room clapping and singing what we can only assume is “Happy Birthday” in Russian, given the cake and candle they carry to another group in the corner. At the table, with a family bouncing along and a toddler looking on in amazement, there are cheers and someone filming the whole scene.

Despite the place being half empty, we expect this sort of revelry at Mari Vanna, considering the buzz coming out of its Washington, D.C., and New York City outposts—two of its stops, after St. Petersburg and London, en route to the West Coast.

Mari Vanna is, after all, known as much for its chicken Kiev, blinis and beef stroganoff as it is for its Key Mondays—a Monday-night happening where VIPs use a solo key to open the resto’s locked doors for a raucous karaoke party (the L.A. variety kicks off in December), not to mention roving accordion players during dinner and busy, vodka-soaked brunches. So, we kind of know what we’re in for.

Now, how this fits into West Hollywood (in the former Bastide bungalow, no less), isn’t automatically obvious. There are nightclubs filled with slinky girls, and supertaut and tanned guys just around the corner, sure. There was even a Russian-owned cafe across the street before Fig & Olive moved in. But that former house-of-haute French eatery has been transformed into this: a new bubbe-chic playhouse, top to bottom, corner to corner.

Whitewashed beamed ceilings overhead, floral-printed plates on the walls, lacy pillows on benches and banquettes, kitschy salt and pepper shakers and crystal napkin holders on the tables, and shelves filled with everything from nesting dolls and teapots to books and old photographs—it’s the fairy-tale house of a Russian grandmother, albeit one requiring a few shots of horseradish or black currant vodka to feel at home. Even the bathrooms are detailed to a mind-boggling degree (I’m still surprised someone hasn’t walked off with that vintage hairbrush yet). The patio, leafy trees intact, is absolutely beautiful, filled with birdhouses and glowing lanterns.

The scene is set so well, you almost forget where you are—or why you’re here (for lunch or dinner). I admit, I’m no Russian-food scholar, although a lot of the dishes are familiar from my Eastern European background— like golubtsi (supple cabbage leaves stuffed with veal and rice), potato or cheese-stuffed vereniki (hearty dumplings resembling the Polish pierogi the church ladies made every Friday at my grade school) and even beef stroganoff (strips of tender meat stewed in a rich, creamy sauce and served with a heap of the most decadent whipped potatoes I’ve had in a long time).

But Russian specialties, like borscht, abound, this version tasting more of onions than beets, but hearty and warming nonetheless. The pelmeni (little veal dumplings) come a bit overcooked, so although the wrappers are somewhat shriveled, they are still tasty, swimming in butter. The folded blinis with house-smoked salmon are simple and delicious, and you can’t go wrong with a few pirozhki, baked mini pies stuffed with beef, cabbage, or rice and egg. Almost everything comes with sour cream, and bread is a staple. Get used to it.

One of the friends I’m with moved here a few years ago from a town outside of Moscow, so the food really resonates with her. Everything, she says, tastes like home, which might have to do with the fact that the chef, Galina Bovtun—also newly stateside from Russia—is in the kitchen. It’s Russian comfort food that, while slightly elevated, hasn’t been transformed by seasonal California ingredients, modernist foams or swishes of sauce on the plate. Just honest-to-goodness rustic fare served on pretty little plates and platters.

Comfort doesn’t mean everything is heavy, however. The pickled herring under a shroud of dilled onion slices is pretty delightful, and the svekolnik, a cold beet soup with bits of cucumber, radish and potato, is something enjoyable on any hot summer night in L.A. (or any night for that matter). We sample the salo, ribbons of sliced pork fat resembling Italian lardo, just not as salted and cured. Dab with some of the nasal-clearing mustard and you’re in for a treat. And for something no one has probably eaten in L.A. since the 1950s, try kholodets, a chicken aspic, or shreds of chicken encased in a gelatin made of stock. There’s a lot more jelly than chicken for my taste, but add enough purple horseradish and you’re good to go.

This isn’t food the kale-obsessed are used to eating in this neighborhood. But they’re going, or at least they’re taking their Russian friends who can pronounce “Nostrovia!” properly before everyone at the table does another shot of vodka. Or maybe they’re all just Russian expats looking for a taste of home. It’s hard to tell. But once the accordion player starts strolling the room, you might as well just give in to the whole thing and clap along.

Booze to Drink
There are cocktails, but the 20 or more sweet- and savory-infused vodkas are fun to sip at the table. Get a flight of five for $35.

Nonbooze to Drink
The adventurous should try the kvas, a yeasty fermented soda that’s, um, unique, to say the least. There’s also dried fruit compote, a light fruit-flavored still drink.

Karaoke Nights
Karaoke in the wine room is apparently a raucous affair. Think: vodka-fueled songs with fake (or real) Russian accents.

Mari Vanna
8475 Melrose Place, West Hollywood, 323.655.1977, marivanna.ru

Hours: Sun., 10am-4pm; Mon.-Fri., noon-4pm and 5pm-2am; Sat., 5pm-1am

Menu: Appetizers, $9-$29; entrees, $19-$27; desserts, $12