Mari Vanna. If you have the time.
I decided to take two bankers as my guests. Look, I know, bankers and all that, but really, these are two of the nicest people you could want to meet and if you are looking for a bit of dosh to do a nice resi development, £2-5m, Central London – these are your guys. And one of them has the best story I have ever heard about Stilton, which makes me weep every time I think about it. Anyway, I hadn’t seen their new offices, diagonally opposite Harrods no less, so I though I’d kill two birds with one stone, this place having been on my list since reading the FT and Jay Rayner reviews. It was the promise of an Eastern European carbfest that did it. This cuisine is, quite simply, in my DNA.
And what was it like? Well, the place is just mad. Like a Disney approximation of my great-great-Bubba’s front parlour on speed. Every surface covered with chatchkes, it’s doilied-up to within an inch of its life. Beautifully done though, even if you felt like you were in a Chekhov play, you know, before everything goes wrong and they lose all their money.
A problem with the kitchen should have alerted us to the fact we might be in for a long ride . We were told that one of the starters that we had ordered wasn’t available, because of a problem with the i-wan. The i-wan? We asked him to repeat it. The i-wan. The iron perhaps? A waffle iron, I ventured? No. The oven. Of course.
I ordered courgette fritters with salted salmon. No salted salmon – would I be okay with smoked? Slightly less adventurous, but as it had already taken 20 minutes to work through the strangely laid-out menu and breaking the habit of a lifetime, I just said yes. We waited. We ate the bread and butter. Good variety. We waited. Showing off just slightly, I raided one of the plates of macaroons on the shelf next to me. The clients were concerned that they were actually decorative and after taking a bite, so was I. Unwelcome memories of the recently consumed out-of-date pesto came flooding back. Much as I welcomed the opportunity to lose weight quickly, I wasn’t keen to have a repeat performance, or to be accurate, performances, so I hid it, half-eaten, in the table decoration. You can’t take me anywhere.
I blame the Georgian wine. Which, of course, we felt duty bound to order. It was unlike any white I’ve ever tasted. More like dry sherry but not actually unpleasant. And lethal. Instead of the promised courgette fritters, I got pancakes, with smoked salmon.
As I was with clients and by this time was so hungry I could have gnawed off my own hand, I said nothing.
Yes, you see, it can be done.
It helped that the pancakes were simply massive and gorgeous to boot and there was enough smoked salmon, (served with sour cream, chopped red onion and grated egg) to keep even Jackie Mason happy. And then we had chicken fritters, potato dumplings, and beef stroganoff, with mashed potato instead of the kasha (by request). The dumplings were delicious – superior comfort food.
Not the biggest main course I have ever seen, mind you. Like a cross between ravioli and gnocchi, covered in sweet onion, they slid round the plate until I pronged them. They lasted about 2 minutes. All the food was pronounced delicious. All plates were left clean. And not the joke-size portions I expected from the reviews, but certainly sufficient.
I had to pretend to go to the loo to check the damned device, as I was in the middle of sorting out a completion and I really couldn’t be out of the office, incommunicado, for the whole afternoon, which is what this lunch was taking. I entered another world of kitsch and somewhat disconcertingly, a locked cubicle and a man’s voice. Russian. I went out into the corridor and checked again. On one door, a brass girl with a skirt. On the other, a boy holding his willy. I had got it right.
Maybe he was drunk. Maybe it’s a different sign in Russia. Maybe he was just a big fat oligarch and didn’t care. As I came out he was still talking. Then there was applause. I looked up. There was a speaker in the ceiling. No doubt this was Russian Radio 4 and it was the afternoon play.
They should warn you.
So we went for the dessert, because by now it was time for tea and it was so late that we had nothing to lose. There was a lot of cream. Fruit and cream. Pastry and cream. Ice cream. Not, I would say, a natural home for the lactose-intolerant.
It was all going too well when we were told that the desserts had been dropped on the floor so all had to be made again. That took 45 minutes. Which we filled in with free vodka shots and some more of that Georgian wine. It would have been rude not to. They took the desserts off the bill.
By the time we left it was 4 pm and we were the only people there who didn’t have shopping bags. It’s that sort of place. And we would have carried on, but I really needed to make an appearance back at the office. I know. I have my priorities all wrong. The thing is though, despite the amateurish service and the slightly claustrophobic decoration, I really liked it. The menu was varied. The food was homely, well cooked and different enough to keep it interesting. The place is like an Epcot version of pre-revolutionary Russia, but fun. I didn’t see the samovar but I know they have one. So go. Spend the afternoon. Have the horseradish vodka. Don’t look at your watch. Or the price. By the end of the afternoon you won’t care.