"I have the simplest tastes. I am simply satisfied with the best." - Oscar Wilde

"I came, I saw, I ate." - Au Gourmand

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Mari Vanna: The Russian Yoshoku - May 26, 2011

Yoshoku is a lesser known type of Japanese cooking, which literally means “Western food”: it is a “traditional” fusion cuisine that has endured two world wars and continues to endear many diners. Yoshoku was an attempt of the Japanese chefs in the Meiji to early Showa period (the beginning of the twentieth century) to cater to the growing public demand for Western style foods, fueled both by curiosity and necessity, by mimicking and replicating foreign recipes to the best of their limited knowledge and resources. In the process of learning by trying, several recipes went through dramatic mutation, which resulted in something extraordinary and delicious and, thoroughly and uniquely, Japanese. The word, “Western,” especially during the early half of this period,* was almost synonymous with the word, “European,” which mainly referred to the following: French – which resulted in the national obsession with mayonnaise and gratin; Russian – ro-ru kyabetsu (rolled or stuffed cabbage) and borushichi (borsht); German - ton-katsu (pork cutlet); and British - shokupan (English white bread) and kare-rice (curry rice), to name a few. While yoshoku encompasses a diverse set of flavors and cooking methods, the unifying flavor is the invariable mellowness and gentleness of each dish, which induces a nostalgic tenderness that would bring tears to the most hardened criminals.**

* The earlier influences were from Portugal – which produced castella and tempura.
**In a stereotypical Japanese police drama, the cop would use one of the these two phrases to crack the suspects: “You mother is crying,” and “Do you want a katsu-don (pork cutlet over rice)?”

Given such historical context, should one be surprised by the similarity of flavors between the Japanese yoshoku and the traditional Russian cooking? After all, they are two branches of the same family; only one of them has run off to Japan and married a couple of other nationals and adopted to the new home country.

Olivier Salad

In Japan, butchers often carry a small range of prepared dishes – usually involving meat – and they are also a major supplier of potato salad. The Olivier salad was a gentrified and more sophisticated version of the Japanese national favorite salad. The smooth texture of the Russian kolbasa – like bologna – merged into the delicate vegetables – diced potatoes, carrots and peas - by way of the fresh, homemade mayonnaise (although I was not sure where the sage was); amidst the silky mayonnaise and velvety potatoes, the few slivers of sweet pickles invigorated the starchy salad.

House cured herring with peanut potatoes and rye toast

Mari Vanna’s herring was the silkiest and richest– almost like sable fish - I had ever partaken in my life; it transformed my perception of the simple herring. The fish dissolved in my mouth at an unprecedented speed, which left not a trace of fishiness, but a creamy and buttery sweetness of the purest fat. The miniature peanut potatoes, sautéed sweet and salty in butter, were also delicious and mind-puzzling because of its equal simplicity. The dish should have been completed here and left the toast for the sidewalk pigeons: the toast was not so far gone as rock-hard, but it was as hard as a wooden plank.


The un-yeasted version served at Mari Vanna was very much like a French crepe, although the blinis were thicker and denser and less elastic than the French cousin. The ground beef filling was basic and a little drab, which seemed to be missing something even with a modest amount of sour cream.


A blind tasting of the pelmeni would have had me fooled: the plump dumplings were very similar to the Chinese dumplings, both in texture and taste; in the north, the Chinese put dill into their dumplings as well – it must be the geographical proximity. The dill butter was blandly nice (or nicely bland – I cannot decide which), but something a little stronger in the form of soy sauce, vinegar and some chili sauce would have been much nicer indeed.

Julien mushroom gratin

The sautéed mushrooms with dill were inconceivably heavy with grease. The cast-iron pan on which it was served was puzzling, as it seemed to have made absolutely no contribution to the dish.

Beef Stroganoff with buckwheat kasha

Beef Stroganoff is so popular in Japan that it is even served as school lunches (in public elementary school, the children have mandatory lunches). Therefore, even the Japanese children would know when they saw a good stroganoff.

Amidst much anticipation and admiration, the famed beef stroganoff arrived with a cute companion: a chubby doll koozie with a disarming glance. Once the doll-shaped tea cozy was removed, an earthenware pot was revealed, which contained the steaming buckwheat kasha. The presentation was fun and cute, which drew various “wows” and “ahhhs” from the table; the same reaction, however, was not elicited upon subsequent tasting. Mari Vanna’s beef stroganoff felt cumbersome as it was heavily creamed to the point where the taste of beef was almost lost in the flood of cream. The sweetness of the sautéed and caramelized onions were also buried under the heavy milkiness of the dish. If served in Japanese elementary schools, the children might just organize a boycott.

Chicken Kotletki with mashed potatoes and pickles

The finely ground chicken was smooth and soft, with a good amount of diced onions mixed in for flavor and texture. The simple chicken had transformed itself into something approaching graceful for the delicate and crumbly texture of kotletki, which seemed to break apart on the tongue despite a certain firmness on the outside, while the creamy sauce enhanced the not-so-interesting avian flavor to a marvelous exquisiteness.


Onegin turned out to be a homespun variety of a rough layered cake with thick butter cream and dried fruits – apricots, prunes, raisins – and almonds. Despite the sugared layers and fruity stuffing, the cake was unexpectedly light and enjoyable even on a stomach going through another phase of expansion.


Mari Vanna’s Russian Napoleon had no relation to the French emperor or the Italian sibling of the French mille-feuille. The soggy layers of ex-puff pastry had already reached a saturation point; all it wanted to do now was to break apart, which it did under the fork. The cream was certainly not crème pâtissière, and not even whipped cream; instead, it was unnervingly milky and dense and starchy all at once. The result was strongly reminiscent of a half-eaten bowl of corn flakes, left in a hurry as you run out of the door in the morning, only to encounter again upon returning home ten hours later. Now that I come to think of it, the recipe for this Napoleon cannot be very different from that for a bowl of soggy cereal.

Mari Vanna
Address: 41 E 20th Street, New York, NY 10001
Phone: (212) 777-1955


  1. I've been very curious about this place, since I've heard such conflicting reports from different people. Thanks for the writeup.

    "The dish should have been completed here and left the toast for the sidewalk pigeons: the toast was not so far gone as rock-hard, but it was as hard as a wooden plank."

    A lot of pickled herring dishes come with crisp toast points, sort of like melba toast. Think that's what the were going for?

  2. Don't get me wrong, I love rye toast, mini or otherwise, with smoked fish or not. But the one served at Mari Vanna was the hardest kind - like a rusk - which destroyed the enjoyment of the delicate fish. After all, they used to give (maybe still) rusk to teething babies!