The great British summer lasted for about four days in London last week. If the sun ever comes back and temperatures flirt with 70 degrees again, it will be a small miracle, but last week it did what was forecasted for two days less than predicted. The gloom has settled in once again and the temperatures are struggling to get out of the 50s. During the brief heatwave it was lovely to get out and see everyone take to the streets during their lunch breaks, what a change from the endless months of dark rain. And I was lucky enough to have a friend and fellow blogger in town from Paris, someone to pal around with in the brilliant sunshine. To top it off, she had been offered lunch for 2 at Mari Vanna in Knightsbridge . Who am I to refuse a free meal?
Most of you know that I grew up in Moscow during the Evil Empire days of the 1980s and in spite of having a childhood cut off from the rest of the world, pop culture, extended family and consumerism, I adored my family’s years there. We very rarely if ever ate out in Russian restaurants or were invited to Russian’s homes for a meal (the one exception being the TASS/KGB guy who befriended/spied on my father whose home we went to periodically and watched the grown ups eat zakuski and drink vodka shots). Our Russian housekeepers prepared some Russian specialities for us but with only a few exceptions my memories of food during all of those years in Moscow is unremarkable. There’s only so much borscht and blini and pilmeni a girl can eat, but now, as only the passage of time can do, I find myself nostalgic for those days of heavy peasant food. Mari Vanna ticks that box and so much more.
I’m embarassed to say that I didn’t know about Mari Vanna’s existence, although given it’s posh post code and pricey entrees, it’s not unexpected. The streets around here are filled with couples toting their designer shopping bags, sipping coffee while chatting with friends. It’s a life I don’t know much about, but love to watch and so lunch at this restaurant which caters to the rich, homesick Russians that fill this neighborhood, was a treat. The interior of the restaurant is done up like your babushka’s dining room on steroids, but still remains this side of tasteful somehow. I was seated in the window next to a Russian man and his son who were having an after school lunch together and was thrilled when the waiter approached me and spoke in Russian, assuming I was one of them. I spoke back in my very rusty second language and that opened the door to a conversation with the man next to me. He said that he brought his kids here because it’s very child friendly and the food reminds them of home. I couldn’t agree more!
For £25 at lunchtime you can try three courses of authentic Russian dishes – the a la carte menu is eye-wateringly more expensive with most entrees hitting the mid-20s, so lunch is a good bet if you’re a beginner and not certain you want to commit to what some would say is an acquired taste. While I pondered the bilingual menu a board of lovely black breads with green onions, radishes and a raw garlic butter was given to us. I munched away happily while listening to the little boy at the next table ramble on about his food likes and dislikes to his father, feeling very at home. My dining companion let me do the ordering for both of us since she said I was the expert, but I had to tell her that Russian food like this wasn’t readily available while I was living there. More often than not, when we did go out to eat, we were immediately informed by the servers that they were out of x,y, and z. Scarcity was the theme and you had to be happy with what they did have.
The food here is lovely and authentic. My borscht was sweet and tart and had tender chunks of beef throughout (nothing like the chewy, fatty pieces I remember from growing up) and the pelmeni filled with pork and beef mince were seasoned perfectly – although I would have loved some fresh dill on top instead of parsley. My friend tried the kholodetz which is roasted chicken and veggies in jelly – not a favorite for either of us, but I think it’s a truly acquired taste. I can’t do jellied meats, I’m afraid. Meanwhile her zucchini pancakes with smoked salmon were divine. Dessert of honey cake rounded things off nicely and her blini with homemade jams and condensed milk were nice, but I would have preferred them to be more like the little Russian blini I remember and less like crepes. Finally, as we were trying to leave and get out to enjoy the fleeting sunshine, the waiter appeared with a tray full of vodka shots. This wouldn’t be a true Russian meal without them, right? Apparently, Mari Vanna is famous for its many flavored vodkas and I can imagine that ordering a table full of zakuski (Russian style tapas) with a variety of vodkas to accompany them could be quite the night out with a large group of friends. The honey shot was my favorite of the four, although cherry wasn’t far behind. And there I had to stop, as the rest of the day lay before me and I had work to get done.
All of these memories took me back to my final project at culinary school, where I created a menu using traditional Russian ingredients to make a more sophisticated French meal. Buckwheat blini with confit of wild boar and quince, plum chutney, wild mushroom pelmeni in a brown butter sauce, fennel crusted meatballs with smetana, smoked salmon custard with caviar, heirloom beet and goat cheese terrine, homemade black bread with roquefort butter and shaved radishes, samovar tea souffle, and to end it, vodka truffles (sound familiar?). The idea was to use French technique to refine the ingredients I so loved growing up. I’ve pulled out my project and recipes and have decided to share my beet terrine recipe as I think it’s something a little different to do with beets and it’s really very pretty. It’s a play on the very traditional beet salad that I could eat by the bucketload. Try to get as many different colors of beets as you can and make certain to boil them separately so the colors don’t bleed into one another. It’s a little fiddly but a treat and impressive for when company comes.
10 beets, different colors if you can find them
1 pound soft fresh goat cheese
2 oranges, zested
3 tablespoons pistachios, finely chopped
1/2 cup sour cream, to loosen the goat cheese mixture
salt and pepper to taste
Boil the beets in their skins for about 30 minutes, or until easily pierced with the tip of a knife. Allow them to cool completely. Remove their skins and slice thinly using your trusty mandoline (I used the third notch on my mandoline). Line a loaf tin with plastic wrap, leaving quite a lot of overhang on each side. Mix together the softened goat cheese, orange zest, pistachios, salt and pepper and lighten up with a little olive oil as needed so it spreads easily. Now place a layer of the golden beets in the bottom of the tin (try and make this layer the nicest and flattest as it will be on top when you turn it out). Spread a thin layer of the goat cheese mixture over it and now add more golden beets. Keep repeating the process, using up all of one color beet before you start the next and making certain the last layer you do is of beets. Now wrap the excess plastic wrap over the beets and using another loaf tin weigh down the terrine by placing a heavy can or two on top of it. Place the terrine and weights in your fridge for at least two hours. To turn it out, simply invert the loaf tin and carefully remove the plastic wrap. You now have a little jewel to enjoy – slice with a very sharp knife and serve, preferably with some Russian black bread.