Mari Vanna, where Alex Ovechkin hangs


Mari Vanna stuffs savory baked pies with fillings of minced meat, caraway-laced cabbage or chopped, cooked egg with scallions. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Without the help of any of the restaurant’s 20 house-infused vodkas, I’m feeling punchy at Mari Vanna in downtown Washington.

The source of my lightheadedness: a houseful of radios, family photos, plants, doilies and Russian newsprint pressed into service as wallpaper — all that just in the restroom. A glance around the main floor — a blur of chandeliers that resemble icicles, lacquered plates on the walls, yards of lacy curtains and a field of painted flowers — suggests Auntie Mame and Doctor Zhivago had a hand in the design. Few restaurants come as overdressed as this one, a 6,500-square-foot import from Russia that takes its name from a storybook grandmother who greeted travelers with home cooking and has branches in London and New York.

Lured by a sidewalk sign announcing “Best Russian Food,” I find myself at an alcove table with a rose and a window. Nice touch and nice view of busy Connecticut Avenue. What follows, from executive chef Azamat Zhanizakov, a native of Kazakhstan, is mostly agreeable cooking served in portions that ensure you won’t leave hungry.

Leave the strapping bowl of hot borscht — packed with carrots as well as beets and bulked up with bites of beef — for cold weather. The savory baked pies known as pirozhki appeal to me no matter the season. They come three to an order, their shiny tops hiding fillings of minced meat, caraway-laced cabbage or chopped, cooked egg with scallions. The last, and best, would make a good breakfast sandwich. The lightest of the starters is nevertheless substantial. Ribbons of eggplant wrapped around a mash of Swiss cheese, walnuts and garlic, presented on a bed of chopped tomatoes, is a meatless introduction that could easily serve as a satisfying main course.

Come to think of it, anything wrapped up tends to be a sure bet at Mari Vanna, which rolled out near the Mayflower hotel in January 2013. Cue the pelmeni, steamed dumplings containing marbles of pork and beef, and cabbage leaves stuffed with ground chicken, an entree that picks up color from a rich cream sauce tinted with tomato paste.

An early and ongoing fan of the restaurant is Washington Capitals star Alexander Ovechkin. “I’m usually on the second floor at a round table in the corner with a group of friends,” he shared with The Reliable Source earlier this year. “It’s the best table in the house. It feels like home. It feels like Russia.”

1141 Connecticut Ave. 202-783-7777. marivanna.ru. Dinner entrees, $18 to $28.

Weaned on a beige buffet a la “Fargo” in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the ‘80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section’s recipes. That’s how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.
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