Not long before Mikhail Prokhorov, the richest man in Russia, went on 60 Minutes last week to talk about his love of “wu-men,” guns, yachts, nightclubs, money, sports, food and the New Jersey Nets, of which he is expected to soon become the majority owner, a rumor circulated among Russian-Americans in New York that he was the man behind a little Russian restaurant on East 20th Street called Mari Vanna.
It made sense. Mari Vanna opened in September, the same month Mr. Prokhorov made a $200 million bid for the Nets, which, if accepted, would mean his relocating here at least part time; it was the first upscale Russian restaurant ($150 chef’s dinner for two) in Manhattan since the now thoroughly denuded Russian Tea Room; and the clientele looked like Mr. Prokhorov’s entourage: new Novoyi Russkiyi who have gotten used to their money and developed refined tastes (more Roman Abramovich’s cashmere shirts than Tony Soprano’s pinky rings) and slender, smooth-skinned young women on their arms. That Russian models get 20 percent off their bills at Mari Vanna seemed like an especially Prokhorovian touch.
It’s hard, after all, to imagine Mr. Prokhorov eating greasy chicken Kiev at one of the Tatianas in Brighton Beach; Mari Vanna’s $29 beef Stroganoff with buckwheat kasha, oyster mushrooms and truffle oil, perhaps washed down with a $15 cucumber dill martini, seems more his style. “The way to the man’s heart is through his stomach,” he told 60 Minutes’ Steve Kroft, explaining that at 44 he has not married because he has not found a woman who can cook well enough.
But in fact, the New York Mari Vanna—there are two other locations, in Moscow and St. Petersburg—is owned by a corporation called the Ginza Project. Its name, indicative of the Muscovite’s yearning for foreign cuisine in the ’90s, comes from its first property, a sushi restaurant called Ginza that opened in St. Petersburg in 2001. Ginza Project owns 70 restaurants in Moscow and St. Petersburg; besides Mari Vanna, its first venture in New York, it plans to open a Mediterranean restaurant called MPD in the meatpacking district in May.
“I can tell you how this rumor started,” said Tatiana Brunetti, one of three Mari Vanna partners, of the Prokhorov chatter, sitting at one of the restaurant’s tables on a recent night during the dinner rush. “You walk in here at night and you see Bentleys, Maseratis, Mercedes, so you think, ‘O.K., here is oligarchs. Rich billionaires in here.’ So who’s the person you’re going to think of who owns this place? Abramovich? No, he’s in U.K. Who is that oligarch who bought basketball team and piece of land in Brooklyn? Oh, Prokhorov! He must own this place.”
Ms. Brunetti, 30, has dark hair and a round face, resembling a Russian Shannen Doherty. She was dressed in a satin minidress with a patent leather belt and ankle boots. She said she came to New York from Kiev nine years ago and that the story behind her suspiciously Italian-sounding last name was too personal to discuss.
Around her, the dining room was full and the waiters in white T-shirts holding plates of smoked fish, Pirozhki and veal pelmeni glided around each other like ice skaters. By the front door, there was a small sign in Russian—“Ezhemechno vnasite kvartirnuyu platu” (‘Every month, pay your rent’)—and some 20 doorbells suggesting a Soviet communal apartment. Inside, the popular song “Faina” by the Russian boy band Na-Na was playing, and the film Ironiya Sudbi (Irony of Fate) was showing on a flat-screen TV. When someone has a birthday at Mari Vanna, the waiters come out with sparklers and sing the birthday song from the famous Russian Cheburashka cartoon sung by a 50-year-old crocodile named Gena; the lyrics, when translated, make little sense in English: “Let the pedestrians run clumsily over puddles/ And let the water run like a river over the asphalt/ It’s unclear to the passerby/ Why on this rainy day/ I am so happy.”
It was Mari Vanna’s second partner, Sasha Polin, who had invited The Observer that night (a third, Dmitry Sergeev, was in Moscow) to come by for the dinner rush, but Mr. Polin, a former party promoter, was not there, so a manager named Victoria Natovich agreed to show us around. Ms. Natovich, 34, used to be an event planner at the financial firm BlackRock before Mr. Polin, a friend, asked her to help him with the place. Originally from Moscow, she’s been in New York 10 years.
Ms. Natovich pointed out vodka jars infused with beets, horseradish, pineapple and cucumber along the wall (“We sell 400 liters of vodka a month,” she said); an obituary of Lenin in one of the newspapers layered behind the wall paper (“You can’t really see it, but it’s somewhere in there”); and little carpeted stools staffers slide next to women for them to rest their oversize purses upon (“As a woman, you know how much we hate putting our purses on the floor”). Despite the bustle, no celebrities were in evidence that night, but by the bathrooms, Ms. Natovich pointed out notes scribbled on the wall written by Mick Jagger, figure skater Johnny Weir, hockey player Alexander Ovechkin and Bill Clinton, who wrote, “Thank you for my daughter’s party,” thanking Mari Vanna for hosting Chelsea’s birthday, signing his name and the date, Feb. 27.
Mark Ames, who ran the Moscow-based English language magazine eXile for almost a decade, said he was at Mari Vanna a few months ago with a party of about eight, including current and former editors of various Russian publications, one of whom was promulgating the Prokhorov rumor. “It really did feel like Moscow in a way I didn’t expect,” he said by phone. “It’s not like one of those Brighton Beach places. For me, it was very nostalgic about what was sort of vile but also very attractive about Moscow. Even the way they had the Soviet kitsch stuff the way they are still doing back there, with the monitor showing Russian movies and that snooty Russian kitsch.”
In other words, Mari Vanna feels authentic in a way that the Russian Samovar on 52nd Street and the Russian Tea Room five blocks north—which has closed and reopened three times since the late Warner LeRoy bought it in 1996—aren’t. Unlike the Tea Room, which was always about the scene (until it wasn’t) instead of the menu, Mari Vanna serves refined Russian food prepared in a way most New Yorkers have never had—with enough flavor, variety and playful pairings to make it the Babbo of Eastern Europe. There are multiple layers of peeling wallpaper suggestive of past tenants and the space cluttered with old books, lamps, radios, dolls, picture frames, samovars, candy dishes, mirrors, wooden ladles and chessboards; any Russian would quickly recognize it as a reference to their grandmother’s apartment back home.
“It’s hard to explain to an American reader, but for years there have been these ironic restaurants in Moscow,” said New Yorker editor and Russophile David Remnick. “It’s a nation of deep irony. There was one where Russian intellectuals went that had this jokey, Brezhnev-era stuff, and a Ukrainian one where you go and sit at rough-looking tables and there are living dioramas of so called Ukrainian scenes like the Museum of Natural History, with people milking a cow or something.” He has not yet been to Mari Vanna, but called the Tea Room in its heyday “silly,” adding, “There was just no Soviet element whatsoever. It was completely un-ironic. It was to Russian czarist-era food as Doctor Zhivago the movie was to Pasternak.”
“Pure poshlost” is what Mr. Remnick called the Tea Room—a complex Russian word best translated to mean false, tacky and pretentious all at the same time. The Mari Vanna proprietors hope to avoid such a label.
“We want to introduce Russians to Americans—that we are very warm and hospitable people,” said Ms. Natovich. “And they love it. They’ve never seen anything like this. One American customer said to me, ‘All the Russian women in here, they’re so pretty and skeeeny!’”
It was 9 p.m., and Mr. Polin still hadn’t showed, so The Observer chatted with Ms. Brunetti, who said she’d worked as a buyer for Burlington Coat Factory before joining Ginza four years ago. “Americans are limited to knowing a few things about Russian cuisine: caviar, vodka, borscht, and that’s it,” she said. “And that’s not what Russian cuisine is. It’s about old recipes starting with the Romanovs. We are so famous by sending our man in space, chemical tables of elements; how come in hospitality we’ve been underestimated? It was never introduced in American market. Like sushi. Forty years ago in New York City, no one would have come up with that idea, and now it’s on every corner.”
An older gentlemen passing by leaned in and whispered something into her ear, and she responded by blowing him a kiss.
“I think New York will eventually become a second London for Russians,” Ms. Brunetti continued. She explained why more wealthy Russians are coming to Manhattan: “It’s a simple answer. Before, it was very hard to get a visa and travel to United States. When the Soviet Union broke up, people went to London, France, Israel, Spain and started buying real estate, because it’s close and you can get a visa. The main reason it was hard to get a visa is that U.S. was scared of you to stay here illegally and work illegally or live off welfare. Even for wealthy people, it was hard. But when America started having not good economical times, then they opened up the borders. It’s easy now as long you have a job and invest in American economy.” In other words, “Mr. Prokhorov! Welcome. Bring your billions.”
By 9:30 p.m., Mr. Polin still hadn’t showed, so The Observer rang him the next day.
“Everyone know when you say Chinese or Italian, but no one know what the hell is Russian food,” said Mr. Polin, who came here from St. Petersburg. “In 10 years, everyone will learn. They say if you can survive in New York, you can survive anywhere.” This seems to be a popular phrase among the newly arriving Russian wealthy. When asked how he plans to make the worst NBA team into the best, Mr. Prokhorov told Mr. Kroft: “Do you remember in the Frank Sinatra song, ‘New York, New York’? ‘If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere.’”