Amidst the glass fronted buildings of Sloane Square with their clean cut interiors, you will find the Mari Vanna restaurant, tucked in, like a little piece of old Russia that has time-travelled into 20th Century west London.
I follow a smartly dressed couple up the stairs into the entrance hall to have my coat taken by a tall elegant blonde woman on the door; she politely refrains from commenting on its battered appearance and hands me a numbered wooden peg. The room is filled with china figurines, vases of flowers, lace-fringed lamps and heavily embroidered rugs. The overall impression of the Mari Vanna restaurant is of walking into the drawing room of a lovely old Russian lady or babooshka, to translate.
I am lead down a winding staircase, papered with faded Russian newsprint, into an even more elaborate salon. At this point I should explain that I am here for one of this year’s many events to celebrate Maslenitsa, the traditional Russian festival to welcome in spring. Focussing on Maslenitsa food and Maslenitsa history, it’s a celebration of rebirth. Russian style.
Although this has been described as a ‘tea’ and it is only 3pm in the afternoon, I wander over to the bar and am promptly offered a strawberry flavoured vodka shot. The barman raises his eyebrows when I tentatively suggest a soft drink and, not wanting to be labeled as a boring Brit, I accept. I tentatively sip it, perch on an elaborately painted velvet armchair and admire the black and white photos of regal ladies from the Tsarist era.
Having skirted around the cluster of intimidatingly beautiful models talking about their latest advertising campaigns in Switzerland I arrive the nibbles. Blinis topped with sour cream and juicy orange gems of salmon roe, crisp pastry cases filled with beetroot salad and calves liver on toast: hearty Russian fayre. I don’t dare explain to the man next to me that I can’t eat meat and have to hide this last one in a napkin. There are additionally juice drinks of cranberry and raspberry, sweet and refreshing.
After being shown a video of Boris Johnson trying, and failing to speak Russian (definitely worth a watch: http://www.maslenitsa.co.uk/ ) we are talked through the plans for Maslenitsa week. My picks are the pancake night at Mari Vanna on the 12th of March and the party in Trafalgar square on the 16th, which will be a festival of vodka and blinis if this event is anything to go by.
The events co-ordinator Olga Balakleets, resplendent in a clean-cut white dress, talks about her passion for promoting Russian culture in the UK. This certainly seems to have taken off. We sample a cinnamon vodka shot and two sweet honey and cream desert nibbles. My attempts at some casual networking generally fail due to my lack of business cards so I decide to try out my few words of GCSE level Russian to varied effects. Finally the heat of the room and the vodka shots go to my head and I have to stumble my way back up the stairs. The room is so full by this point that I congratulate myself for not breaking any of the ornaments tucked along shelves and on polished wooden tables. ‘It must be a nightmare to dust’ a man next to me quips. Despite the ‘PR’ nature of the event, it gave a nice flavor of the week to come. If a visit to Mari Vanna restaurant doesn’t quite fulfil your desire for Russian culture, there will be a varied programme of free cultural events, including an evening of Russian literature at Waterstones and an arts masterclass at the Russian cultural centre.
I am writing this article whilst looking out at the Soho sunshine and I can fully understand the Russian excitement for the arrival of spring. ‘Nastrovaya!’ (that means cheers… remember this, it could come in handy!)
More information from maslenitsa.co.uk
words Helena Goodrich