John Lanchester enjoys his lunch at Russian restaurant Mari Vanna, London SW1, but after having cream in each course wonders whether he will ever be hungry again
The room is like no other restaurant I've been in. That's because of the decor - there's just so much of it. No surface is undecorated. There are tchotchkes, trinkets, pictures, candles, jars, lights, and decoupages of old magazines literally everywhere. It is the busiest, cosiest, homeliest, least restaurant-like restaurant imaginable. The very obvious idea is to target well-off nostalgic former citizens of the old country. The food is wonderful, too, in its way - its very, very Russian way. There's a full page of chopped salads, made with great care and considerable visual impact: mine featured beetroot, egg, salted herring and mayonnaise, and it was a superbly balanced dish of textures and flavours. I'm not sure I've got the point of Russian salad before. Courgette pancakes were light and soft - not crisp - and came with unsmoked salted salmon and soured cream - simple but well-executed. The pierogi (dumplings) were a surprise: they were more like tiny brioche loaves with a filling inside (a choice of three, sea bass, beef and pork, cabbage and egg). A bit heavy, I thought, but a table of Russians was tucking into them with enthusiasm, so maybe this is how they rock their pierogi back in the old country.
Price: Three-course meal for two with wine and service, about £120
Jay Rayner says Mari Vanna, London SW1, is completely bonkers, but in a sweet way, and its wildly over-the-top take on Russian cooking is a delicious carb-fest not to be taken lightly
For the main courses we stick to the classics. We have a dish of pelmeni. The silky little meat-stuffed dumplings come with a cooling bowl of soured cream and are completely compelling. We have golubtzi, the cabbage leaves stuffed with a big, butch mix of pork, veal and rice. At Mari Vanna everything is stuffed, including the diners. There may be friendly young Russian waiters who look like they work out a lot, but really you're being fed by a grandmother who doesn't understand the words "enough already". At Mari Vanna it doesn't matter what month it is. Winter is coming. Winter is always coming. So eat. And drink, of course. There are many vodkas, sold by the 5cl shot at outrageous prices. So we slug Russian Standard vodka and chilli vodka and feel gravity take hold. It says much for the food that it is the fabulous pastries, made of cream, sponge, cream, pastry and cream which bring lightness to the meal.
Price: Meal for two, including vodka and service, £150
The Independent on Sunday
There has to be good reason to traipse across town for a kebab. And the secret sauce at FM Mangal, London SE5, might be it, says Lisa Markwell
Mr M needs little persuasion to have the FM Mangal Special (£16): a meaty feast of lamb cutlets, spicy minced lamb shish, diced lamb, a chicken thigh and a spatchcocked quail. The heap of blackened delights is accompanied by a grated carrot salad, some juicy pickled red cabbage and a citrussy slaw, as well as a modest scoop of rice, which is fluffy and buttery. Everything is seasoned beautifully, the meat the ideal marriage of charred exterior and tender insides; the quail just edges the prize. If my son was here he'd say they've got mad skills (or something...). My dish sounds a risk. "Grilled chicken shish with yoghurt, bread, butter and tomato sauce, £9.95." I think if I'd come with a non-kebab eater I might have played it safer. As it is, after two bites I'm calculating how often I can come back before the congestion charge bankrupts me. Soft chicken, of course, but the generous chunks of meat are just one element of the joy. Beneath are small slivers of the same flatbread we'd scooped our humus with, grilled and painted with a delicious marinade. A dollop of yoghurt lies at the bottom, and on top of it all, a thick slathering of fiery, fiery, rich red sauce.
Price: About £40 for two, including soft drinks
The Sunday Telegraph
Zoe Williams says that despite its name, dinner at Cotidie, a super-chic restaurant run by former two-Michelin-starred Italian chef Bruno Barbieri in Marylebone, London, is far from the everyday
My battuto of Piedmontese beef (£13) delivered the opposite problem, a texture so perfect it was an effort to slow down enough to taste it. Think of a steak tartare, except that the meat is darker, meatier and more complicated, having been cured in spices to intensify the woody, animal atmosphere. Then bring in a goats' cheese fondue, tangy but creamy, with its sharp edges smoothed off by a pistachio flavour. It was considered and lovely. We then had a middle course, M the lobster spaghetti salad (£19), me the Frantoio soup (£13). Hers burst with vegetal energy to look at, red peppers and vivid greenery exploding out of the slick spaghetti. The lobster had a flavour that was restrained but remarkable. Frantoio is the name of the oil upon which my soup was based, a classy little affair of pasta and chervil. It's a very discreet flavour-game, the mouth equivalent of teasing out the difference between beige and taupe. When it works, it's sophisticated and illuminating (you really taste an oil, and really experience a herb), and when it doesn't it's boring. This worked.
Price: Three courses, £39.32
The Sunday Times
AA Gill scores Dabbous, London W1, a perfect five because each plate is made with finesse and consideration for how it will be eaten
Every single dish, every plate made with such finesse, such a careful balance of flavour and texture, so much dexterous consideration for how it will be eaten, the most pleasing and simplest way to show off each ingredient to its best advantage. Connections that are a surprise on the first bite and familiar best friends on the second. In a room full of people on dates, without ties, having dinner with mates, not the foodie folk, not obsessive bloggers taking snaps, not the mad trend-gourmands sucking their fingers and filling the emotional hole. It was as close to perfect as I've eaten for a long time, with more than a touch of the Nordic night about it, a crackling warmth out of the storm, an understated craft. All this food that is kept close to the soil, the hedgerow, the pool and the tide, but is still as romantic as a fairy ring, with the sophistication of rightness. Each of us were properly, lovingly, unforgettably gobsmacked.
Price: Starters between £5 and £7; main courses £12 to £14
Marina O'Loughlin can't resist the coffin-sized pizzas and sense of humour at Bunga Bunga in Battersea, London SW11
The food, designed for sharing - well, it isn't brilliant. But it's better than the trappings suggest: pizza bases are wood-fired and have the bite and elasticity of the properly proven, even if their tomato topping is overly sweet and the n'duja (a spicy Calabrian spreading sausage) on our "Ruby Loves" a little on the harsh side. Salumi aren't finest quality, but cut so whisper-thin that inadequacies are masked, and wild boar is nicely chewy and gamey. There's veal Milanese, which is soggy with oil rather than crisp and greaseless, its gremolata dressing as shouty as our dining chums. I always order fried zucchini sticks if available, as reliable a simple-but-tricky indicator of talent as a good burger: these are clunky, thick as chips and mushy inside. But Bunga Bunga's charm and friendliness suck us right in. How can we frown when the small band, on its Coliseum podium, strikes up Volare, and we all, as one, go "woah-oah"? Or when lights dim, disco beams strafe the walls and staff perform a hilarious little dance routine?
Price: A meal for two with wine, cocktails, water and service, is about £90