Mari Vanna

41 E 20th St. New York, NY 10003(212) 777-1955marivanna.ru/ny

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The name alone brings a smile to my face because it sounds a lot like marijuana. The other smile inducer is the décor, dressed like a movie set plucked right out of the 1920’s in post World War I Russia. From the chairs to the plates to the distressed walls and the copper kettle sink in the bathroom, you feel as if you’ve actually just done the Time Warp again.

It’s just a jump to the left. And then a step to the right. Sorry. Getting very sidetracked in a Rocky Horror kinda way. So back on topic, the décor somehow comes off authentic and not as gimmick, partly because it’s very well done and partly because the employees are actually Russian and I want to believe they wouldn’t dare work at a place that turned their culture into a caricature.

The food is also pretty authentic, for better or for worse, because it’s not exactly the most decadent cuisine, most dishes being born out of a need to pack on the pounds to keep warm, or out of poverty-stricken means to survive. This is excluding the caviar, of course.

Starting with the bread, it is served with a customary beet and green onion, along with coarse sea salt, which you are supposed to drag the root veggies through before eating. I took a pass and opted for the bread, because if it’s one thing Russians do well, it’s pain (2 points for the double entendre).

For starters we went with another classic, the Olivier Salad, made with roasted vegetables, bologna and mayonnaise. It was just okay, tasting more or less like potato salad, to be honest. This was then followed by the pickled herring, which was also a bit underwhelming, to be honest. I’ve had much better at some of the Kosher Delis in the city, not to mention the Romanian ones.

But the best starter- no, the best dish in totality, was by far the Borsh. So rich and hearty, the beets were like meat, and the broth like the sweet blood of Sookie Stackhouse. In other words, it’s most definitely an Ultimate.

On the other end of the spectrum, the most disappointing dish of all was the much touted Stroganoff, only offered as chicken instead of beef, which made the dish horribly bland, the chicken, rice and sauce all tasting like shades of the same. Not sure what the Yelpers are thinking on this one, but this strogan was off. So off, in fact, that I actually preferred the meat stuffed dumplings with sour cream. Nothing spectacular, but they reminded me a little bit of the Turkish dish manti, granted they are probably closer to a perogie than anything, in a good way.

The tally is mixed on this one, as you can see, but I’m leaning to the low side because of the slow service and a waiter who swooned about everything on the menu as if it were made with gold. I hate that.

2 teeth

 

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Almayass

24 E 21st St. New York, NY 10010(212) 473-3100almayassnyc.com

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Attention all Ilili lovers, there’s another game in town. And what’s especially nice about this game is that it’s easier to play. In case my obtuse analogy isn’t tracking, what I mean to say is that it’s way easier to get a table, especially at lunch.

But settle you will not. Almayass is not just an alternative. It’s very much a destination in its own right. From the moment you enter, you are immediately taken by the elegant décor which is much warmer than Ilili,, blending more classic elements with contemporary, and accented with wonderful works of art.

Another plus is that the staff is much more pleasant and much less snooty than at Ilili, which is nice if you don’t want a side of attitude with your fattoush, speaking of which, it was very good.

In fact, most everything was good. A few misses. A few homeruns. And lots in between. Among the homers would be the Soujuk Almayass. Best thing I’ve ever had with this Middle Eastern sausage. It’s painfully simple really, just a slice of sausage sitting on a crostini with a sunny side quail egg on top. But holy Lebanon was it good! Chased with a little arak (Lebanese anise liquor) and I was all like “Ilili who?”

Another dish that was surprisingly better than any I’d ever had before was the mantee. It’s the same thing as the Turkish dish “manti, which are tiny ravioli filled with meat, covered in yogurt. What made it so special, however, was how crisp it was on the outside, and so most and creamy on the inside. And we all know what a softy I am for contrasting textures.

Three other dishes that were also very strong were the kebab made with filet mignon, the baba ganoush served with pomegranate seeds and the lentil soup. Granted my review of the soup is only hearsay, and by that I mean “MMMMMMMMM!!!” from across the table.

In the middle of the road was the pita bread, tzatziki and hummus. And bringing up the rear, the three biggest misses for me were the olives, the tabouleh salad and the sarma.

The olives because they were served pitted, which I can only assume was due to the fact that they’re afraid of getting sued by someone for cracking a tooth on a pit, because no self-respecting restaurant from the region would ever serve olives pitted otherwise.

The tabouleh because it was very leafy and dry. I like mine more moist and hearty.

And last but- well actually least, the sarma. Among the worst stuffed grape leaves I’ve ever had. Such a shame too, because this place was so close to five knives, but I’m afraid they fell shy by one.

4 teeth

Limon

Yali Mevkii No:1, Gumusluk 48400, Turkey • Phone: 90 252 3944044 • limongumusluk.com

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I’ve spent three anniversaries in a row here, so suffice it to say that I like it. A lot. The view and  the setting make it such a wonderful departure from the same old harbor-side restaurants that make up virtually 90% of the places in the Bodrum area. But that’s only the half of it. Adorned with a quaint, eclectic mix of antique furniture and lanterns, you sit and dine in the middle of a olive tree field, overlooking the sea- taking in the natural beauty that is the Agean. The collective vibe sort of gives you the sense that you’ve been transported as a beatnik back to the 60’s. That is, until the inventive twists on Turkish classics, hit your table, like fried manti for example. Or blistered green beans in a classic olive oil dish, taking inspiration from the popular shishito peppers and then mixing it with incredibly fresh stewed tomatoes.

Scores of other things were also good. like the zucchini blossom dolma and this unusual bean salad that tasted like a cross between a lentil and a wheat berry, mixed with peppers and little crunchy bits of filo dough. The fish and octopus have also been very good. And most recently we did their special kofte (kebab), with a wonderful heat to it, tomato sauce and cubes of Ramadan bread which soaked up the juices from the meat and the sauce making it even more awesome than it’s already awesome self. One thing I highly recommend doing, which is not on the menu, is to ask for the sampler plate so you get to try a little of everything.

Dessert was the only spotty course. Ice cream is always a crowd-pleaser, but it’s nothing to swoon over. And the mosaic cake is also quite good, but not necessarily amazing. If you truly want to end on a high note, the strawberry cheesecake is the best of the bunch. More crust than cheese, which is atypical for cheesecake kind, but I honestly prefer it now that I’ve had it.

And last but not least, for such a trendy place, it’s nice to see that in three years the service has never dipped. But let’s be honest, no one is paying attention to the severs. The setting really is the true star here. Çok guzel (very beautiful) as they say in Turkish. Çok guzel indeed.

*Also, one MAJOR tip, go just before sunset. You’ll thank me.

4 teeth