Let me take you on a journey…
On a quiet stretch of Melrose, under the shade of a bay fig tree, you’ll find a restaurant called Mari Vanna. Its white-washed, shabby-chic exterior stands out on a street of sleek branded torefronts, including Monique Lhuillier and Oscar de la Renta. Reminiscent of a dacha (Russian country home), the restaurant exterior is decorated with intricate woodwork and floral folkart, and the front entrance lined with terracotta pots and wooden planters sprouting colourful blooms. As you pass through the double doors, you’re transported into a scene more whimsical. A band of birdcages hangs from two sky-high olive trees; Russian samovars in brick trickle an eternal stream of chai; puffy ceramic birds sit atop wooden tables — they double up as salt and pepper shakers.
The interior dining room is more eclectic. It’s as if Mary Poppins emptied her bag in babushka’s house, at which point Mari Vanna– which translates to “fairy godmother” — transformed the space with the whoosh of her wand. Stacks of Russian novels teeter alongside matryoshka dolls at the bar, vintage Victorian lampshades hang from the ceiling of the main dining room, and an arrangement of watering cans and kettles make a feature on the sun room’s back wall. It’s all rather mismatched yet it feels strangely familiar. Even the boisterous brunch crowd — kids, parents, Russian-speaking grandparents, and Los Angeles’ fashionistas – feels like an extended family.
The menu plays second fiddle to the sumptuous aesthetic feast. The Russian fare is simple and traditional, and looks to the past with nostalgia. Childooh favorites are on offer here: handmade veal pelmeni (dumplings), vinegret (beetroot salad), mayonnaise-laden salat Olivier, and chicken kotletki (rissoles), along with an all-you-can-fit-in dessert buffet spread with sirniki (ricotta cheese patties), cream-filled flaky pastries, and heaps of Red October chocolate. It’s as good a culinary initiation as you’ll get outside of Russia.