What can be better than a freshly shucked oyster on the half shell? Perhaps, a freshly shucked oyster on the half shell, topped with caviar? Although partiality of one to the other is a matter of preference, based on a recent experience, I must say the latter is definitely worth a try if the occasion should ever present itself.
For a recent birthday celebration, we decided to try Mari Vanna in the Flatiron district of New York. With a Russian theme, the restaurant resembles what can only be the apartment of an aristocrat living during the time of the Czar in Russia. It is gaudy, over the top, and completely ridiculous, but in the most intriguing way. There is random crystal ware; portraits of unknown people on the walls, and way too many chandeliers for the small space it encompasses. None of the chairs match, the tables are all different in size and style, and glass windows covered with curtains enclose the open kitchen. But what may appear as thoughtless decoration is in fact the detail-oriented placement of artifacts, which nonchalantly create an amusing dining experience.
With a true Russian cuisine, oysters were the last thing we expected to find on the menu. But there they were among the herring, potatoes, soleniys (picked vegetables), salo (smoked pork fatback), and other items which are meant to serve as “zakuski” when drinking shots of vodka. So with a small carafe of vodka on the way, we added a dozen oysters to our order. They had Kumamtos and Ocean bay. Both were well shucked and refreshing, but in no comparison to the other appetizers we tried. That is until we had the oysters topped with caviar. Definitely a different spin on our dear oyster, it was an explosive surprise in our mouths. Following the creaminess of the kumomato belly, each caviar crystal burst with flavor and salt, adding a finish we have yet to experience. Definitely the aristocrat way of chasing a cold shot of their house infused vodka.
From the rest of the menu, the Chicken Kiev was crispy on the outside and tender with melted butter on the inside. The sautéed Pike was not at all greasy, but rather delicate and flavorful. The pelmeni, petite veal dumplings, came served in a small pot under a doll like covering, which upon removal gave way to the aromatic present underneath. Another example of the restaurant’s attention to every detail.
But the most entertaining part is the Russian singing staff. Not only do they come out in a group, with musical instruments in had, but they sing the Russian birthday song for a full embarrassment effect. And the Napoleon dessert is absolutely not to be missed!
Although we were delighted to find oysters on the menu, there are many other reasons to return to this exquisite little gem of a restaurant. With delicious food, an entertaining old school play list in the background and charming décor, Mari Vanna is one complete package for an exciting and unusual dinner outing.
41 East 20th Street
New York, NY 10003-1324
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