Let me take you on a journey…
On a quiet stretch of Melrose, under the shade of a bay fig tree, you’ll find the restaurant, Mari Vanna. Its white-washed, shabby-chic exterior stands out on a street of sleek brand-name storefronts including Monique Lhuillier and Oscar de la Renta. Reminiscent of a dacha (Russian country home), the façade is decorated with intricate woodwork and floral folkart. The front entrance is lined with an assortment of terracotta pots, wooden planters, and colourful blooms – pass through the double doors and you’ll be transported into a whimsical scene. Wooden birdcages of all shapes adorn two ten-foot-tall olive trees; Russian samovars set into brick trickle a never-ending stream of chai; ceramic birds sit puffed-up atop wooden tables (these tchotckes double up as salt and pepper shakers).
Inside, the design of the dining area is more eclectic. It’s as if Mary Poppins emptied her bag in babushka’s house, at which point Mari Vanna– a fairy godmother — magically appeared and transformed the space with the whoosh of her wand. Stacks of Russian novels balance alongside matryoshka dolls in the bar, vintage Victorian lampshades hang from the ceiling of the main dining room, and an arrangement of watering cans and kettles make something of a feature of the sun room’s back wall. It’s all rather mismatched yet it feels strangely familiar. Even the brunch crowd — kids, parents, Russian-speaking grandparents, and Los Angeles’ fashionistas – feels like your boisterous extended family.
Indulging on such a heady feast of aesthetics means the menu plays a supporting role. The Russian fare is simple and traditional, inspiring nostalgia for the home-cooked meals from childhood. The brunch menu includes options like 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 including a constantly-replenished platter of sirniki (ricotta cheese patties), bowls of sour cream and jam, cream-filled flaky pastries, and heaps of Red October chocolate. It’s as good an initiation to Russian food as you’ll get outside of the native country.