Mari Vanna, 93 Zarifa Aliyeva Street, (by the Hilton Hotel) Baku Tel.: (+99412) 404 95 95 www.saffron.az
“You are old, I am young” said the Maître D’ as he sat down at our table, uninvited but welcome. Then he, who had also just informed us that he was 40, furiously backtracked and shoulder slappingly told me “Not you, of course!” It’s true, had I given birth in my teens, I could just about be his mother but holding on desperately to middle age despite veering dangerously close to the wrinklies stage, it was not a remark that instantly currys favour! Still, it gave the evening a certain unforgettable amusement value, that you can believe! The lovely husband and I, mildly demented geriatrics that we are, had a jolly good old giggle about it.
This dashing young man in his rather fetching pink and blue gingham shirt and bow tie, then proceeded to inform us that ‘life is short, you only live once, make it sweet, live it to the full!” Too right, I say, and I’m glad he reminded us of the brevity of our existence. We wasted no time in ordering a bottle of wine.
I guess you’ve got to be quite ancient to remember Kate Bush’s song ‘Babooshka Ya Ya’. It’s about a wife who by dressing up, meets up with her husband incognito to test his loyalty and thereby ruins her marriage. Apparently, at the time, Kate Bush wasn’t aware that ‘Babushka’ means grandmother in Russian. You’d think she’d check before releasing her single, no? But who am I to scoff, I myself nicknamed my newborn baby daughter ‘Babushka’ until a Russian speaking friend enlightened me. I hope I haven’t done her permanent psychological damage by referring to her as ‘granny’ before she was barely a few months old!
Back in the days of my misbegotten youth, decades ago now, I too did the incognito thing. Twice. I sent a single black stocking with a theatre ticket to the play ‘The Woman in Black’, first to a much younger man who I had taken a fancy to, and then later to a man I was considering getting engaged to. I myself, kept the second theatre ticket, hired a wig of flame red waist length hair, dressed up in what I believed to be a seductive outfit and, after the lights had gone down in the auditorium, made my way to my seat beside the object of my desire. The surprise worked every time. The much younger man and I had a brief fling, then he painted my house, before being sent on his merry way. The potential fiancé and I had good times until I got fed up with him measuring the distance between where I had parked the car and the curb, and I escaped the future matrimonial shackles like Roadrunner from Wile E Coyote. Ah yes, those wild child days …..Now I can virtually hear the good matrons of Baku tut tutting but I am an adventurer and an experimentalist, and I make no excuses nor harbour any regrets.
Anyway, I am digressing wildly, let’s get back to grandmothers. Mari Vanna is an international chain of luxury Russian restaurants in cities around the world such Moscow, London and New York. The concept behind it is that of a fictional Babushka who invites guests into her cosy front parlour and serves up Russian hospitality and home cooking. In Baku, it is opening its doors on the 18th of May but over the preceding week or so, it has undergone what in the business is termed a ‘soft opening’, when people who are in some way connected to the restaurant are invited to sample it in advance, allowing the establishment to find its feet before the general public have access. On account of my Baku foodie blog here, the lovely husband and I were most generously invited by the Saffron Group to dine there and, contrary to my principles, on this occasion I accepted a ‘freebie’. Churlish not to. This however, does not mean that my opinion will be anything other than honest. Nonetheless, please bear in mind that it is early days yet for the restaurant,so give it time to iron out granny’s wrinkles.
The idea of creating a home-like atmosphere certainly works. Lace placemats and napkins, rustic floral crockery and antiquey style furniture make it a warm and inviting place to eat. Pretty girls at the entrance greet you in floral peasant inspired dresses and lead you to your table, then the waiters and a sommelier take over. There are two dining rooms, one with a country pub type feel, the other, with larger, group oriented seating arrangements, more like an old fashioned front parlour. For my liking, the big tables are a little too close together, forcing guests and waiters alike to shuffle sideways around them. In any case, there seems to be an over abundance of waiting staff, so there’s always someone shuffling around behind you, in front of you or beside you and lots of rather awkward reaching across and around. Somehow, there seemed to be too much nervous movement by the staff, too many people involved in too many things at, on or around our table which was mildly unrelaxing. No matter, it’s a pretty place and comfortable otherwise. The menu is entirely in Russian which is, of course, nice and authentic but absolutely hopeless for non Russian speakers such as myself and the LH. Luckily, the Maitre D’ took over competently, checked our food preferences and ordered for us.
We started with two excellent salads, one crunchy green with roasted walnuts and a light lemon dressing, the other a tomato, aubergine and pepper mix with pomegranate, and some mildly smoked fish pate with lovely bread. Very good indeed! For our main courses, we had a chicken Kiev with mashed potatoes and a side salad and some battered fish fillets with buttery herby new potatoes and also a side salad. I haven’t eaten Chicken Kiev since the 1970s (goodness, I AM old!) but this one was certainly very palatable, the chicken drumstick succulent, the crust nice and crispy. The fish fillets too, were pleasant and well prepared, if a little bland, perhaps. I must admit, I am not the greatest fan of deep fried food, I don’t much like potatoes, especially mash (after all, astoundingly, I still have a full set of teeth!) and I generally prefer light and spicy food which is obviously not the way of Russian cuisine, which tends towards carbs and stodginess, so the dishes weren’t entirely my cup of chai but they were of good quality and enjoyable nonetheless, there’s no question of that. All my fusspottiness flew out of the window the minute the apple strudel with icecream arrived. Sweet Baby Jesus, it was phenomenally good! The ample filling very juicy, appley and well spiced, the shell, a thin crispy dough rather than flakey pastry, and all in a good sized portion at that. Nom nom, as they say in cartoons.
I can’t report on the pricing since we had been invited and didn’t have to pay, but I do know that Mari Vanna is generally considered an upmarket restaurant with prices to match, so don’t expect a budget meal here.
Replete and satisfied, we headed back home. You know how it is, us old folks need a good night’s rest, but we were happily chuckling to ourselves all the way.