Saturday 25 August 2012

Mari Vanna

Even though I'm not a fan of vodka, caviar or sub-zero temperatures, Russia is still a country that intrigues me and I hope to visit someday. Meanwhile, the closest I've been was when I had lunch recently in a restaurant which although it was in Knightsbridge, in my mind could easily have passed as the smart Moscow townhouse of a genteel babushka. Stepping into Mari Vanna is like stepping into another world, let alone another time.

Apparently once upon a time in St Petersburg, a mythical woman called Mari Vanna, welcomed diners into her home and fed them traditional Russian grub, served on her best china and linen. Following the success of its restaurants in St Petersburg, Moscow and New York, Mari Vanna has now opened in London.

On arrival at Mari Vanna, my friend and I walked past the multitude of blooming terracotta pot plants gathered around the front steps and through the door into the elaborate hallway. The friendly and welcoming staff showed us into the restaurant and to our table. The whole place is adorned with iconic Russian artefacts, archetypal trinkets, old books, Russian stacking dolls, lace table cloths, pretty lamps, photographs, ornate mirrors and frames. Even the loos are beautiful and give a whole new meaning to the word 'throne'.

Mari Vanna serves authenic Russian cuisine. If your immediate idea of Russian food includes borsch and dumplings, you wouldn't be wrong as those dishes are very prominent on the menu. We both started with a hearty bowl of hot borsch, a beautiful dark pink soup made with beetroot, cabbage (and sometimes with beef) served with a dollop of sour cream. For the main course, I had the Siberian Pelmeni which were basically beef & pork dumplings served with sour cream. My friend had the Vareniki - vegetable dumplings with potato & mushroom, also served with sour cream. Both good but quite mediocre. For pudding we opted for chocolate cake and honey cake. The honey cake was exceptional. I'll admit that Russian food in my opinion is quite basic and bland on the whole and wouldn't be my first cuisine of choice, and at Mari Vanna it is pretty expensive. But it was really interesting sampling these dishes, especially in such beautiful and elaborate surroundings, and the waitresses were really friendly, helpful and accommodating. We washed our meal down with a jug of mors which is a very refreshing traditional soft drink made with sweetened berry juice and water. The perfect thirst-quencher.

Mari Vanna is the kind of place where I almost expect to see Anton Chekhov with pen poised, enjoying a blini. Or Rasputin drinking vodka, wooing the ladies and playing the balalaika. And I was secretly wishing Dr Zhivago may walk through the door... It evokes charm, romance and curiousity. If dumplings and cabbage aren't your thing however, then I suggest you indulge in their afternoon tea. You can't go wrong with a slice of honey cake, blinis with jam, and tea served in a china pot.

Miss Immy was a guest of Mari Vanna

Mari Vanna
Wellington Court
116 Knightsbridge
London SW1X 7PJ
020 7225 3122

Open midday til midnight daily
Set lunch menu is £18 for 2 courses or £25 for 3 courses.

Thursday 16 August 2012

Dach & Sons

I rarely make it to North West London, so when I was recently given the chance to review newcomer, Dach & Sons in leafy Hampstead, I didn't hesitate to check it out. I'd forgotten just how pretty Hampstead is with all it's hilly, winding roads and village ambience, so it was nice to return on a perfect summer's evening to check out the sliders, dogs, beers & bourbon and other such wares that this cool New York-inspired joint has to offer.

Informal and relaxed, Dach & Sons has a diner-style interior with a whole lot of wood, steel, tiles and neon going on. Pretty much everything at Dach & Sons (apart from the bread) is homemade and local. They've got a resident butcher who spends his days preparing all the patties and sausages with a secret formula to guarantee its uniqueness. Even the ketchup is homemade! The menu is all about sliders, hot dogs and a range of side dishes. I went for the trio of small and perfectly formed sliders which included one with bacon, lettuce & peanut jam, another with gruyere & dill and the other with salt beef chill & sour cream. Delicious. My friend indulged in a Chilli Dog which I gather was a hit. We had a side of frickles (beer-battered pickles) and some beef-dripping fries served in a mini fryer basket.

For the bourbon-drinkers amongst you, you're spoilt for choice as there are shelves creaking under the weight of all the various bottles of bourbon galore. If you'd prefer a cold beer to go with that dog n' frickles, then there are various beers and ales to choose from. As wine-drinkers, my friend and I opted for a very quaffable bottle of Viognier. Even though I didn't see it, I hear rumours that Dach & Sons boasts a roof terrace as well which makes it an even more perfect place to while away a sunny afternoon.

One of the best things about Dach & Sons is that it is also home to a secret speakeasy (and you know how much I love a speakeasy). It's simply called 'Flat P' and can be found upstairs. There's a big neon sign which flashes the word 'Lucky' and for those in the know, it means there is room at Flat P. But when the little red 'Un' is illuminated, it means it's full. Unlucky! P stands for Purl, as the team behind Dach & Sons are also the same guys who set up Purl in Marylebone, and the Worship Street Whistling Shop in Shoreditch. Both reknown for their dark, intimate interiors and excellent cocktails. We retreated up there after dinner to try out one of their concoctions. The cocktail menu is purposefully old and 'stained' with tiny print which requires reading with a giant magnifying glass which is thankfully provided.

I really enjoyed Dach & Sons, and am quite envious of all those local Hampstead residents who have it on their doorstep. The service is fast and friendly, the atmosphere is relaxed and down to earth and the food and drinks are affordable and tasty. What are you waiting for?

Miss Immy was a guest of Dach & Sons

Dach & Sons
68 Heath Street
London NW3 1DN
020 7433 8139

Open 11am - 11pm
No reservations

Thursday 9 August 2012

Hoxton Street Monster Supplies

'What's that coming over the hill, is it a monster? Is it a monster?' Well if you're in Hoxton, it's highly likely it is a monster, as there's a very special shop called Hoxton Street Monster Supplies - purveyors of quality goods for monsters of every kind. I know you're probably tutting in enormous disbelief, but it's true. I've been there and seen it with my very own hairy eyeballs.

My secret sources tell me that Hoxton Street Monster Supplies was established in the spring of 1818 by its esteemed founder, Igor, who arrived in London during the harsh winter of 1817, having fled his home in Bavaria after an altercation with an unruly local mob. He was welcomed into the arms of the East End monster community, who helped Igor get back on his feet, and it was there that he decided to set up his monster supplies store in Hoxton. Now, you may or may not believe that story, and I won't deny I was a bit dubious at first, but as I wasn't around in 1818 (and I'm guessing you weren't either), who are we to question it. But the fact is the shop is very much there and has established itself as a true family business which has been handed down through many generations of Igors. It closed for a while, but after some much needed refurbishment (and the current Igor accepting it was time to install electricity), it re-opened in 2010 where it remains, serving monsters across the land.

Humans are very welcome to enter the shop at their own risk, and as it says on the door, beans (magic or otherwise) are not accepted as a form of payment. My curiousity got the better of me, so I took a friend along (safety in numbers) to explore its wares. It certainly didn't disappoint as we stepped into a world of the most marvellous, hilarious and even downright gruesome items I have ever seen for sale. Large kilner jars full of pickled eyeballs, maiden's hair, fresh farts and extracted nails dominated the top shelves. You'll find an interesting selection of human preserves including Organ Marmalade, Thickest Human Snot and Guts & Garlic Chutney. I couldn't resist getting a box of Cubed Earwax which to the human tastebud, has a close resemblance to fudge. There are also practical items available such as large rolls of Fang Floss, and one of my favourites, a pair of Neck Bolt Tightners which were sadly out of stock.

For something extra special, you can even buy little jars with cork stoppers which contain salt flakes. But these aren't any old salt flakes, as they're made with human tears of either laughter, anger, sorrow or onion-chopping. There is even a small pot which contains a crystal of Purest Joy which is so rare, it costs an 'eye-watering' £60 a pot. Only very posh monsters can afford such luxury!

When I was there, the shop was heaving with monsters in all shapes and sizes. There were a gang of werewolves, a family of ghouls, a pair of vampires, some teenage zombies and one particularly handsome curly-haired yeti. But strangely enough, none of them seem to have come out in any of my photographs. Most peculiar...

Aside from all the pots and potions, the shelves are stacked with a vast array of Tinned Fears. Be it a tin of 'Night Terrors', 'Heebie Jeebies', 'Colly Wobbles' or 'A Vague Sense of Unease', each one comes with some monster treats and a specially commissioned short story from authors including David Nicholls, Nick Hornby and Zadie Smith.  They're brilliantly designed with witty directions, and they make smashing presents! The Tinned Fears are all part of an exciting project called the Ministry of Stories. In fact, you may notice behind the shelves there is a hidden entrance which leads to the Ministry of Stories. This wonderful writing centre offers personal tuition for 8-18 year old youngsters who are keen to explore the writer within. Having the magical element of the Hoxton Street Monster Supplies shop front is a fantastic way to inspire and engage the children's imaginations, whilst the income from Igor's wares, goes towards maintaining the writing centre whose services are mostly given by volunteers. The entire concept is just brilliant!

So if you find yourself in need of a tin of Heebie Jeebies, a pot of brain jam or a pair of 3 eyed-specs, I can't think of anywhere better to go. Hoxton Street Monster Supplies is without doubt one of my most favourite shops, not just in London, but in all the world. Now you all know what you're getting for Christmas! And if you see Igor, say hello from me. Fangs very much.

159 Hoxton Street
London N1 6RJ

Tue - Fri 1pm - 5pm
Sat 11am - 5pm

No beans. No cards. Cash only
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