With its large population of international students, Georgetown certainly has many students who are looking for a taste of home. As an ethnic Russian, I have a hard time finding restaurants that can manage to satisfy my palate. Despite an abundance of European and Asian cuisine scattered throughout the city, there are not nearly enough places that make food like my grandmother’s.
Located near Dupont Circle a few blocks down Connecticut Avenue, Mari Vanna is nestled among a dozen or so other restaurants. The antique architecture and draping curtains make it stand out. Incidentally, Mari Vanna is named after a Russian grandmother who was famous for inviting visitors to try her homemade meals, so I was hopeful that the rabbit stew would taste just like my babushka made it.
Open for lunch and dinner throughout the week, Mari Vanna has an old-fashioned, authentic feel that extends beyond its exterior. The hostess immediately greeted me in Russian, much to the confusion of my other friends. The distressed wallpaper and Russian trinkets were perfectly complemented by the waitresses wearing vintage sundresses. The whole place was very floral and littered with antiques, making it feel like I was dining in the State Hermitage. The restaurant was designed to evoke the sensation of dining in my babushka’s apartment, and even the check was handed to us in a cute grandmother’s purse.
A restaurant’s purpose is to make good food, however, not merely to provide a cozy ambiance. Fortunately, the highlight of my experience proved to be the food. To start us off, we were given a cutting board with a variety of breads, sliced radishes and whole stems of green onion elegantly laid out with salt and sunflower oil on the side. After flipping through the clipboard menu with a spoon as its handle, I decided to first order pirozhki, or stuffed pastries. Each pirozhok was savory in its own way — the egg-filled pastry had a notably soft, chewy texture, the meat-filled one had a hearty tenderness and the cabbage pastry had a slight sourness that, although surprising, demands that you take another bite. The smoked fish platter was perfect for sharing, and the different fish contrasted with each other quite nicely. The Atlantic butterfish particularly stood out, as it gave the same, distinct smell one can only find when walking by the ribni (fish) section of a Russian general store.
The entrees were tasty as well, and the beef stroganoff and rabbit stew were particularly memorable for their presentations and flavors. The pot in which the rabbit was served was steaming through the top, and the smell was irresistible. The rabbit itself was juicy in texture, and the hot vegetable stew was wonderfully contrasted by the cool sour cream served on the side. Arguably the best dish was the beef stroganoff. I could swear the meat came from a cow that had been served mushrooms all of its life — it tasted as if the beef had been infused with mushrooms. The addition of mushroom cream sauce and buckwheat made this the item I recommend the most.
If there were any negatives, it would be the price and the size of the menu. Mari Vanna’s other locations in New York, L.A., Moscow and St. Petersburg have been around a bit longer and, consequentially, have more items on the menu. Given time, hopefully the D.C. branch will expand its selection of food to the level of its sister locations.
Likewise, the pricing is not exactly ideal for a typical college student. This is certainly a place to go for those not-too-frequently occurring special occasions, like when parents drop by. With appetizers ranging from $8 to $20 and entrees exceeding those by about 10 or more dollars, it is hard not to spend around $40 before even getting to drinks. However, this should not deter someone from going, if you are looking for an elegant restaurant where you can try cuisine that’s a little ethnically different, Mari Vanna is the place to go. Or if you are like me and seeking food reminiscent of your grandmother’s cooking, this will no doubt taste like home.