From Russia, with love: Afternoon tea at Mari Vanna’s
Nestled in one of the most exclusive areas of London and a mere stone’s throw from English institutions like Harrods, Hyde Park and Harvey Nichols lies a somewhat unlikely retreat from the noise and bustle of a busy workday: Mari Vanna – Russian tea-shop, restaurant, and home away from home… if home happens to be the sitting room of your wealthy Russian grandmother.
We were guided to a table laid with china, silverware and crisp white linen. Paper napkins were folded into the lower half of a Matryoshka doll, and water was served in cut crystal glasses. London’s Mari Vanna (and its sister institutions in Moscow, Saint Petersburg and New York) was designed to feel like a home – the home of the mythical Mari Vanna herself, to be precise. It has that ordered clutteredness of the most opulent and established houses furnished with a lifetime’s worth of bric-a-brac. You can spend a good ten minutes just looking: chandeliers, nested bottles, lamp shades draped in tasselled shawls, plates and photographs and stoppered jars full of sweets and seeds. The walls are papered over and hung with photographs, mirrors, and paintings; the wooden parquet floors are half-covered in Persian rugs. A wooden goose peeps out from a shelf of wine bottles and a large Fabergé egg rests beside the till (the only sign of modernity in the whole room, apart from the people).
There are two menus on offer in the afternoon: an à la carte menu, available from noon until midnight, and one devoted specifically to afternoon tea. We opted for the tea with traditional Russian desserts and savouries (£25) and the tea with blinis (£9.50), but also spent a little time with the à la carte menu. It is one of the thickest menus I’ve come across (perhaps because it’s written twice, in English and in Russian). Prices are reflective of the neighbourhood and opulent surrounds: £6-18 for starters and salads or £11-28 for mains.
Our tea arrived in ceramic pots with glass cups held in traditional pewter glass-holders. My friend ordered black tea, and I, white; both were delicate and refreshing. Service was formal and friendly, with incredible attention paid to making customers (and their possessions) as comfortable as possible: a lady near us was given a blanket for her cold shoulders, and soon after we were provided with small footstools for our handbags.
Don’t ever order the afternoon tea if you’re in a hurry, not just because you’ll want to spend as long as you possibly can in the calm of Mari Valla’s salon – each canapé is made individually to order, so expect to drain your teapot at least once before the food arrives. Staff are more than willing to top up an empty pot, however, and it’s definitely worth the wait.
The blinis were perfectly done: lacy, buttery, and accompanied by five delicious jams – all pink, and ranging from very sweet (strawberry) to quite tart (lingonberry). The savoury tier of our selection was equally impressive. A teaspoon-sized pikelet topped with a dab of cream cheese, fat beads of caviar and a garnish of dill exploded in a tiny riot of salt-sweet flavours. Meanwhile, the cured salmon with cream cheese in a blini wrapping had more subdued, buttery undertones which highlighted the gorgeous flavour and texture of the fish. There were two golden pierogi, light and bready: one filled with minced pork and beef, the other (less outstanding) with oniony cabbage and egg. Then there were the light, pillowy squares of rye with shavings of beetroot and cucumber sandwiching a morsel of herring, which was delicious.
After such a good beginning, the cakes – sadly – couldn’t really compete. The standout was the honey cake, wafers of sponge layered with a sweetish, melt-in-the-mouth cream. There was also a square of meringue topped with the thinnest skin of solid chocolate, a (surprisingly dry) chocolate cake with fruit jam and ganâche, and a miniature haystack of flaky pastry suspended in a thick, rich custard. All tasty enough in their own rights, but in the end they were no match for the quality of the savouries. We found ourselves wishing there were two tiers of savouries and just the one of sweets.
Although it only opened five months ago, Mari Vanna already has the feel of an institution. Staff and regular customers are encouraged to bring their own old photographs to add to the walls, and staff do all they can to make the place homely and inviting – while maintaining its sheer 5-star opulence. It is well worth a visit, whether you’re looking for high-quality Russian fare, a refuge from the London bustle, or a stunning venue for your next celebration.
Mari Vanna, Wellington Court, 116 Knightsbridge, London SW1X 7PJ
To make a reservation, call 020 7225 3122.
For more information, click here for Mari Vanna’s website.