Walking through Russian mazes

Ever since I was 13, there had been talk about my mother’s family having some Russian ancestry, but I only found concrete proof two years ago. I learned how to make the family’s version of Russian salad, but my reporting experiences on Russian small plates taught me that multiculturalism in the D.C. Metro area can still pack a punch, even for a local such as myself.

What I wish I knew before going to Mari Vanna

I went to Mari Vanna last Saturday night and then spoke to Russian Orthodox Church members the next morning. If I had spoken with the St. Nicholas Cathedral parishioners beforehand, I wouldn’t have felt so lost.

Eating zakuski (Russian small plates) is a custom that spread all across the former Soviet Union, including Lithuania and Bulgaria. Lithuanian parishioner Tatjana said that zakuski usually come with a drink, most notably vodka. Because vodka has a high alcoholic percentage in it, food accompaniments are necessary. She said that Lithuanians are more inclined to eat small plates with beer and possibly put their own twist on the food, such as rubbing garlic on fried dark bread and sprinkling salt on it.

Eating Russian small plates normally consists of simple dishes. Gherkin cucumbers, pickled mushrooms and kielbasa are often found in Russian zakuski. But parishioner Gregory Oleynik said that Russian Jews have their own versions of zakuski, such as bread with smoked salmon and small plates featuring duck instead of pork.

But two parishioners said that eating zakuski doesn’t require alcohol. One of them, Elena, said that zakuski can simply be appetizers for larger meals, such as the kasha that is traditionally eaten during Lent.

Feeling lost in all of the restaurant’s tchotchkes (knickknacks)

My server, Darko, got nervous when I tried to explain that I’m taking medicine that prevents me from having vodka. Mari Vanna has different-flavored vodkas that are made in-house and he thought I should try a fruit-flavored one.

If I had known that vodka wasn’t necessary to enjoy zakuski, I wouldn’t have ordered it. But I ordered a blackberry-flavored vodka shot. At best, I should have just taken a sip, but I wanted to be thorough in this restaurant review.

The drink, which I took in little sips, made me feel very warm. Darko said it’s because the drink contains 60 percent alcohol. Good thing I had a lot of food to counter the drink’s effects because it also made me feel jittery. I also drank a lot of iced water.

But I understand the popular food choices behind zakuski. The drink tasted like a combination of red wine and vinegar, which matched the cured herring dish I ordered. The herring, which included onions and allspice, tasted mild, but meaty. The fingerling potatoes tasted similar to the potatoes my mother cooks and serves with salmon. But the toasted rye bread, which eerily tasted like the vodka, had a pleasant texture but made me realize that I shouldn’t drink vodka again.

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Cured herring and blackberry vodka (Photo credit: Selma Khenissi)

The pirozhki (singular pirozhok) were a welcome part of the restaurant experience because the buns were warm and doughy. Although I think it’s expensive to charge nine dollars for three buns, I know it’s a lot of work to make dough. Each bun had a different filling, so it felt like opening a present each time.

The cabbage one tasted nice, and so did the bun with the egg and scallion filling. The meat bun, however, looked and tasted nondescript, possibly like rehydrated cardboard.

Restaurant patrons also receive a bread board that requires some instruction. My server told me how to do this right:
1. Take the scallion
2. Dip it in olive oil
3. Dip it in salt
4. Eat it
5. Eat a piece of radish
6. Eat bread
7. Repeat until finished

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Bread board (Photo credit: Selma Khenissi)

The result is similar to eating more bearable versions of horseradish and wasabi because the spiciness went up my nose.

The décor really felt theatrical, starting with the restaurant entrance. Restaurant patrons are encouraged to open the door with a key lying under the welcome mat or ringing one its multiple doorbells. But the patron who was next to me simply opened the door, which worked just fine. Chandeliers were all over the place, including one above the small table where I sat. Because of the abundance of tchotchkes, I thought that the regular water was served from the green bottles I saw at every table. Little did I know that still water meant something other than tap water, and it cost me eight dollars.

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Mari Vanna entrance (Photo credit: Selma Khenissi)

But the theatricality doesn’t stop there. An accordion player arrived later that night, which made the restaurant experience more rustic and traditional.

Where: 1141 Connecticut Avenue, Washington, DC 20036
Cost: Moderate to expensive, depending on what you order (My check came close to 40 dollars, so it was expensive, but I didn’t order wisely)
Recommended drinks: Cranberry, cherry or blackberry vodka

A Russian recipe to try in the kitchen

Tatjana suggested that I try making herring under a fur coat, which is a herring salad. Like Russian salad, there can be variations on the recipe such as skipping the mayonnaise, adding shredded apples or chopping up the herring into tiny pieces. Here is one variation of the recipe.

 

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