Published 12 August 2012 News Review 994th article
Michael and Geraldine with Rebecca and Larisa at Mari Vanna, Knightsbridge (Julian Whatley)
There was a famous 1966 comedy movie, The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming. Nominated for an Oscar, won a Golden Globe. I've got news for you. The Russians ain't coming: they're here. They gather daily in Mari Vanna, a bizarre restaurant in Knightsbridge. I've seen them. Should I have informed MI5? As it is, I kept shtoom and had my lunch.
Mari Vanna was a mythical lady who welcomed people to her house. The restaurant is the most overdecorated, super-kitsch place imaginable. Not unpleasant, just odd.
The menu is printed in tiny brown type on brown paper, so you need the KGB and its secret-police successor to decipher it. I got a sickly sweet raspberry juice and ogled a table of formidable people from Azerbaijan wearing Olympic badges.
“Wouldn’t like to cross them,” I observed to Geraldine. She loved her crab salad with poached egg and her beef stroganoff.
My first course, cold borscht, was historic. Like no borscht I've ever tasted. The very charming waitress, Rebecca, explained that in it was dill, slices of beetroot, small chicken's eggs, horseradish, vegetable stock - and, for all I know, the chopped-up heads of those who protest against that nice Mr Putin. It was very refreshing. Cream was there to add. I've never had a finer soup.
Some got on my shirt. I was dabbing it with my napkin when Rebecca asked: "Would you like a new napkin?"
"How about a new shirt?" I responded.
Then things took a dip. My Olivier salad was cold peas, carrots, Polish sausage (bland), citrus mayonnaise and quail's eggs. Tasted negative, left that.
At the next table an elderly man was telling the restaurant manager, Larisa, that he never drank with meals, not even tap water. He couldn’t read the menu, so Geraldine lent him our glasses.
I was amusing myself by counting the number of cake stands spread everywhere when my chicken fritters arrived. As I'm incapable of ordering and identifying food, I thought in my crazed mind that chicken fritters would be like sole goujons: slices of chicken covered in batter. In fact they were fat, lifeless blobs surrounded by fantastic mashed potatoes.
I asked for more of the flavoured butter I'd had with my bread when the meal had started and I was young, added that and the potatoes were even better.
For dessert I was going to order honey cake and home-made Russian vanilla ice cream with strawberry sauce. I thought the honey cake would be like Arab honey cake - deliciously gooey and with real honey.
When I was filming in Acre in Israel, I went round thanking the Arabs for letting us into their street. The Jewish crew kept their eyes on the rooftops, expecting to be shot. The Arabs were, throughout Israel, delightfully hospitable. They offered me coffee and honey cake, the quality of which I will never forget. They also had a great sense of humour. The Jewish Israelis, by comparison, were absolutely miserable.
At Mari Vanna they brought in the inevitable display of cakes, including the honey cake, but they all looked horrific. So I had only the Russian ice cream, which was fine.
On the way out I asked the burly Azerbaijani group: "Have you got any gold medals yet?"
"The Russians have five," was the reply.
"But you're from Azerbaijan," I countered. "Have you got any?"
"Not yet," they replied.
"Don't worry. Tomorrow you will," I predicted cheerfully - and retired into Knightsbridge to be driven home.
I do not on the whole go for takeaway meals. But I recently had a fish curry and some roasted vegetable and lentil soup from Indian Zing, a restaurant in Hammersmith recommended to me by Sunday Times readers.
It was totally superb. If the purpose of a chef is to produce food with taste and quality, then Manoj Vasaikar is as good as they come. I have never tasted better Indian food anywhere than that which he produces. I really owe a great big thank you to the readers who pointed me in his direction.
From Don Roberts in Cheshire. Hymie's Filipina maid asks for a pay increase. Becky is very upset and talks to her: "Now, Lainie, why do you want a pay rise?"
Lainie says: "There are three reasons. The first is that I iron better than you."
Becky asks: "Who says that?"
Lainie replies: "Your husband. Hymie. The second reason is that I cook better than you."
Becky is enraged.
"Nonsense," she responds. "Who says you cook better than me?"
"Hymie, your husband," says Lainie. "The third reason is that I am better at sex than you."
Becky is becoming uncontrollable.
"And did my husband say that as well?" she asks.
"No, Mrs Cohen, the gardener said it."
"All right, Lainie," Becky says. "How much do you want?"
May I applaud you for providing our kiddies with interesting historical information about 10th-century Venice last week? Perhaps you could also tell us of your personal experiences during the Boer war.
Tim Burton, Berkshire
I find it disappointing that so many of your correspondents seem to think insulting you is witty. It's not your fault you occasionally appear to be bewildered and bedraggled.
Jim Wilson, East Lothian
When we were at Chewton Glen, we had cockroaches in our bathroom, we were treated like third-class citizens and the poor ancient, disabled man at the next table was told to go and get his own marmalade.
Frances Lediard, Surrey
At the Millennium hotel in Grosvenor Square, the shortbread biscuits were as soft as putty. I told the waiter they were probably undercooked or stale. He said he'd tell the chef but that he was sure they were undercooked. Needless to say, nothing was taken off the bill.
Cian O'Callaghan, London
At the Ivy the sea bass was fresh, the rice like 12-year-old leather. She who must be obeyed thought the herb monkfish was horrid. Not surprised to see empty tables.
Adrien Bray, Bedfordshire