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  • Reservations Recommended

    Restaurant Review ~ Mari Vanna / 1141 Conn. Ave., NW

    Somewhat under the radar, at least for some DC foodies, is the remarkably excellent Mari Vanna, a very chic and upscale Russian destination. The setting resembles a rustic yet elegant granny’s farmhouse with flowered wallpaper, brick walls, many wood-and-glass cabinets filled with china, wooden tables, upholstered (and comfortable) chairs and couches, hanging chandeliers, and a second floor area where hungry patrons can go to avoid the crowded, boisterous and lively bar scene downstairs.

    Of course, unless you are totally conversant in Russian cuisine, the menu might be a bit puzzling. And to settle you into figuring out the menu, start off with a shot or two of vodka that can be flavored with many different infusions. Then as you thumb through the multi-page menu and you realize you have no idea what many dishes are, do ask the waiter. He will probably be from Ukraine or Slovenia or Russia, so he will know his food.

    As you deliberate, you can always splurge on an order or two of caviar — family, Siberian, or royal, with increasing prices to boot — but you may just empty your wallet for these treats. Then to really, really start, you can order blinis, pirozhkis, or crêpes, but why not try something not so familiar, like khinkali or the superb traditional khachapuri, which resembles (sort of) a stuffed pizza. In fact, it is stuffed with a gooey cheese filling and baked until golden and, well, gooey.

    Main course choices are most likely more familiar to most foodies, and even to nonfoodies. Who does not know what chicken Kiev is, or roast duck, and beef Stroganoff, all of which are immediately knowable. Kudos to the Stroganoff and Kiev dishes, which were composed of cut-up meat in a rich gravy and served with a mound of mashed potatoes. For a slight change of entrée pace, add on an order of meat-filled Russian dumplings…and more shots of vodka.

    Actually, as you are mellowing out, read through the many different infusion flavors with which you can spark your vodka. These range from horseradish (a bit odd) to plum, cranberry, and pumpkin, plus more, including sea buckthorn berry.

    And then do not pass up dessert. The restaurant’s signature honey cake is a thick wedge of cinnamon-colored (but not flavored) pastry with what tastes like layers of honey spread throughout. That is stunning but so is their rendition of a Napoleon, which is a rectangular wedge of layered sheets of pastry slathered with a creamy filling. Delicious!!! And with all that, of course, comes a choice of coffees, including espresso and cappuccino.

    All of the Mari Vanna experience is unique for the DC restaurant scene. Where else can you luxuriate in a setting that resembles an upscale farm home with granny’s touches? Where else can you find a menu that offers both exotic vodka shots with entrées that may be totally unheard of in this country? And as you make your way downstairs to the main room, you will likely find it filled to overflowing with partying millennials having the time of their life!

    Mari Vanna / lunch & dinner Mon, Tue., Thu, & Sun. 11:30am-11pm; Wed., Fri. & Sat. to 2am. (202) 783-7777.

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    Alexandra Greeley is a food writer, editor, and restaurant reviewer. She has authored books on Asian and Mexican cuisines published by Simon & Schuster, Doubleday, and Macmillan. Other credits include restaurant reviews and food articles for national and regional publications, as well as former editor of the Vegetarian Times and former food editor/writer for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong. Click here to visit her website.