When I worked at a local alternative weekly in the 1980s, one of the editors instituted an informal ban on the phrase "on acid" in reviews because the locution was clichéd and because it was so hard to figure out what a chocolate mousse on acid might really be like. The foggy psychedelia was far more likely to exist in your mind than it was on the plate.
But when you push through the door into Mari Vanna on a warm November evening, prepared to explain to the woman behind the desk that Open Table lost your reservation and that horseradish vodka is your thing, it is hard not to feel as if your perceptions have been altered, that the grove of olive trees on the patio have been festooned with a hundred birdhouses, that the samovar in the corner trickles an endless stream into a bottomless pitcher and that everyone in the room seems to be clapping along with a wheezing accordion. (One or two wooden birdhouses might have been charming; in a mass, the impression becomes almost sinister, like crows gathering in Hitchcock's "The Birds.")
You see dresses that you recognize from the current issue of Vogue, you see business suits pinstriped with gold and you see tight death-metal T-shirts. If you wander inside into a dining room, you may fear that the collection of plump china pots and porcelain cats may threaten to collapse the walls. From the artfully peeling wallpaper to the porcelain sparrows that serve as salt shakers, from the riot of embroidered cushions to the half-hidden cosmonaut portraits, there is the sensation of self-conscious Soviet-era nostalgia so thickly layered that a Kiev childhood may be necessary to understand it all.
You can get that chilled horseradish vodka, pungent as Philippe's hot mustard, served in heavy crystal pitchers. After a few minutes here, you may feel as if you need it.
When it was announced that the Melrose Place home of Bastide was going to be the first West Coast location of Mari Vanna, the local culinary world did not precisely rejoice. Bastide may have been the best fine-dining restaurant in Los Angeles during its run, probably the only dining room in town within shouting distance of three
Mari Vanna, on the other hand, is an international chain of expensive restaurants founded in Moscow, with branches in London, New York and Washington, although not yet in Singapore or Dubai. It introduced itself here not with promises of delightful Russian cuisine but with the gimmick of front-door keys given out to its best customers that would allow them to visit when the restaurant was officially closed. There would be caviar, some of it costing more than a decent car payment; dozens of flavors of infused vodka; and live music. Mari Vanna is the kind of place whose newspaper coverage tends to focus on billionaires and movie stars more than it does whatever might be on your plate.
You settle in at your table. You contemplate the amuse bouche, which includes thin slices of a few different kinds of dark bread, two radishes, a tiny dish of salt and splash of bright oil that tastes of sunflower seeds. After you have started in on a plate of cured herring, another holding ivory curls of the Russian lardo called salo or an improbably delicious version of holodetz, the aspic-topped chicken salad you may have pushed away the last time you visited a Russian nightclub, a waitress may pop by with a small shot of vodka flavored with tomato and basil, cucumber or astringent sea buckthorn berries.
"It's kind of our thing," she says.
To go with the gift of vodka, you decide to get a plate of blini, thin buckwheat pancakes, with sour cream and a small pot of salmon roe. Once more the house has won.
Mari Vanna, in an unexpected twist, presents neither abstracted Russian cooking nor standard international cooking with a Russian twist but a somewhat lightened version of Russian home cooking, the kind Anya Von Bremzen describes so well in her new "Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking." If you are looking for Herring Under a Fur Coat, a molded salad of chopped herring, potatoes and grated beets that Von Bremzen calls "the sine qua non of a proletarian repast," you will find it here. If you want to rediscover the stodgy, sour-cream-laden beef stroganoff or claylike chicken Kiev of your childhood, you will find it here too, alongside pleasant braised veal stew spiked with dill; the floppy, veal-stuffed dumplings pelmeni; and potato vareniki sprinkled with shreds of fried onion.
Some of the dishes are served in the kind of bulbous ceramic pots your grandmother may have used in the 1970s. Sometimes the pots are carried to the table on a wooden board. The plates are carefully mismatched. The salt and pepper shakers are shaped like birds and arranged carefully on crocheted doilies. There is something maddeningly specific about all of this.
If you are not Russian, the veal kotletki may seem like impossibly plain sautéed meatballs served with a grayish-tan mass of groats. The chicken kotletki are well-emulsified, like something a Hong Kong diner might plop into a bowl of porridge. The golubtsi is not unlike the stuffed cabbage you've seen on a thousand steam tables. If you haven't winced at the idea of Olivier salad, a gloppy mess of potatoes that has made its way across half of the planet, then you have never experienced Russian or central Asian cuisine.
But those veal kotletki — they are surprisingly fragile, bound with a thin, crisp skin where the ground meat hit the hot butter, and its accompanying kasha is deeply flavored with mushrooms. The chicken kotletki may be bouncy, but the sensation is mostly of lightness, like an airy mousse caught just at the moment it firms, and the cabbage wrapping the golubtsi is as delicate yet resilient as the skin of a well-made Chinese soup dumpling. That Olivier salad, bound with the usual mayonnaise and spiked with crunchy diced vegetables and tiny cubes of Russian bologna, might help to demonstrate why Uzbeks and Iranians have kept it on their menus for the last century.
This may be simple Russian cooking, but it is careful Russian cooking, distinguished less in conception than in execution; tasting distinctly of home. Save room for cake.
The old Bastide space has been reimagined as a Russian fantasyland.
8475 Melrose Place, Los Angeles, (323) 655-1977,
Salads, $10-$14; appetizers, $11-$19 (astronomically more with caviar); desserts, $10-$12
Open noon to 1 a.m. Mondays to Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays. Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Valet parking.