Trying the New York restaurant where Russian NHL stars find a taste of home

NEW YORK – Wild defenseman Jake Middleton was on the court one day in November and Russian superstar Kirill Kaprizov surprised him with a question.

“Have you ever eaten Russian food?” -asked Kaprizov.

“No,” Middleton responded.

“Do you want to go to New York?” Kaprizov said.

“Absolutely,” Middleton said.

Middleton, 27, is from a small town in Alberta and had no idea what to expect. He thought maybe it would be something extravagant, maybe even some raw fish dishes. What Middleton encountered one night in mid-November was a hidden treasure for Russian-born NHL players looking for a real taste of home.

Kaprizov brought Middleton and captain Jared Spurgeon to Mari Vanna.

The restaurant is located in a quiet area on 20th Street in Manhattan. From the outside it looks like an apartment. You could easily pass by the green-rimmed windows and the entrance with “Mari Vanna” written on a faded white curtain above it. But if you enter, you will be transported thousands of miles away and decades back in time. The menu, from borscht to cured herring, is cooked and served by Russian staff. It’s as authentic as NHL players have found in America. So is the decoration. There are old Russian books, lamps, dolls, photographs in gilt frames, teacups and chess boards. The white tablecloths and floral china look like they’re from the ’70s in the dim lighting. Russian cartoons play on a flat-screen TV.

“It’s like your grandmother’s house,” says Rayo defender Mikhail Sergachev. “Like being back in Moscow.”

“You can immerse yourself in your childhood again,” says Jets center Vladislav Namestnikov.

“It’s having your kitchen at home,” says Panthers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky.

Mari Vanna also has a branch in Washington, DC and two in Russia. It is owned by the Ginza Project, which owns 70 restaurants in St. Petersburg and Moscow. This New York location, which opened about 15 years ago, has the personal touches of a family-owned hole-in-the-wall spot. Namestnikov said “regulars,” at least before COVID-19, were given a key, with a Matryoshka doll attached, so they could enter on “off” nights or for private parties.

The head chef will come out and greet NHL players like Sergachev, Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy, giving them a hug. There are signed plaques hanging on the wall from celebrities (like Sarah Jessica Parker) as well as its biggest hockey stars, from Kucherov to Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin. The November night Kaprizov brought in Spurgeon and Middleton, there was a table full of Detroit Red Wings.

“It needs to be checked,” said Sergachev.

So on a recent trip to New York I did just that.

Nikita Kucherov’s signed plaque (right) adorns the wall of similarly signed plaques at Mari Vanna in New York. (Joe Smith/El Atlético)

Sergachev was a rookie with the Lightning in 2018-19 when he got his first experience with Mari Vanna.

His teammates Kucherov, Vasilevskiy and Namestnikov had been there before and wanted to introduce him. They met the owner, the head chef, who, according to Sergachev, looked and acted like his grandmother. He gave them a hug and brought them some off-menu options. He couldn’t help but notice the antique furniture, the magazines, the tattered white wallpaper, which had signatures from previous guests.

“Every year I go back to Russia and my grandmother’s house, and it’s something similar,” Sergachev said. “There is a large Russian community in New York and you feel at home. Everyone speaks Russian. You don’t feel homesick because you can go to that place. It reminds you how beautiful our country is.”

Sergachev said his favorite dishes usually start with borscht, a soup typically made with meat broth, vegetables and seasonings. The meatballs are essential, as are their salads; Sergachev prefers “herring under a fur coat.” When it’s not the night before a game, the Lightning group usually grabs a shot of infused vodka shots, as you can choose from a variety of flavors, from cranberry to horseradish to cucumber to dill.

“Kirill said the right way to make a Russian dinner is to have those drinks,” Middleton said, laughing. “We didn’t do it that night.”

Kaprizov told his teammates that the mid-November trip was his first time at Mari Vanna, although he had been to the city’s Russian Tea Room before. Kaprizov likes to prepare his own Russian food, usually dumplings. “My mom did a lot to me, we would just freeze,” he said. “And you just cook them whenever you want. You can have them for breakfast, lunch or whatever.”

Middleton told Mari Vanna, he and Spurgeon simply handed out the menu and let Kaprizov show them the way, from borscht to dumplings to after-dinner drinks. The best part? Kaprizov also paid the bill.

“Before, I had no idea what Russian food was like,” Middleton said. “But it looks a lot like farmers’ food. Heavy and dense, soup and potatoes. It was a very funny experience. I went and put in a couple of pounds of potatoes. As we were leaving, there started to be a commotion and a gang started to form. It would have been great if we had a free day the next day to spend the entire night. They said that Sundays and Mondays are the most Russian nights, where Russians go to have fun and hang out.

“I’m sure it won’t be the last time I do something like this.”

On the same mid-November night that Kaprizov hosted his teammates at Mari Vanna, I tried it myself.

Armed with tips from several Russian players, I wanted to experience it all. He invited a friend, Kieran, a Londoner who now lives on Long Island, to join. The bar was packed while we waited for our table. Russian music usually plays in the background, but that night there was a three-piece jazz band. They were hidden in a corner next to the bathroom, with Russian cartoons playing on a television behind them, and old framed photographs hanging on the wall. Sydney Fay played acoustic guitar and her sound gave off Norah Jones vibes.

I never thought I’d listen to “Only You” while eating borscht, so cross that off my bucket list.

We sat at a table in the front, where you could see the hanging lights outside the French doors. The lace curtains and tablecloths had a vintage feel, as did the white polka dot dresses worn by the waitresses. We started with a chicken liver dish, with the spread on toasted bread. The borscht, beets mixed with meat, was just as advertised. This is the kind of place where players say they treat it like a tapas place, splitting a bunch of appetizers and entrees. The meatballs were served in a mini brown bowl that looked like a coffee cup. I could have eaten 15 of them.

Since Kieran and I weren’t playing the next day, we had the infused vodka shots (a shot of five for $50). It was an eclectic mix of cranberry, apricot and horseradish flavors.

“They are not that strong,” Sergachev told me. “So don’t worry.”

Russian players often bring their teammates to introduce them to their culture. Sergachev, Kucherov and Vasilevskiy brought Pat Maroon and Alex Killorn to the Mari Vanna in Washington, DC. “Everything there was amazing,” Maroon said. “I’ve never been to a place like this.”

Other teammates don’t always have the same reaction. “I was in New York and Kevin Hayes came with me,” Namestnikov recalls. “I don’t think she liked him too much; he was making a funny face. Some like it, some don’t.”

Players are sometimes asked to sign plaques that are placed on the wall. Kucherov signed one, “Tampa 2020,” with his name written in Russian. We weren’t asked for our autograph, but after paying the bill (which came in a blue Russian-designed tote bag), the hostess came over to ask one more question.

“Would you like some drinks, guys?”

The author settled in for lunch and refreshments at Mari Vanna in New York.

(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic. Photos: Alex Ovechkin by Michael Mooney / Getty Images; Kirill Kaprizov by Bruce Bennett / Getty Images; restaurant photos by Joe Smith / The Athletic)