NEW YORK — One day in November, wild defenseman Jake Middleton was at the skating rink and Russian superstar Kirill Kaprizov surprised him with a question.
“Have you ever eaten Russian food?” asked Kaprizov.
“No,” Middleton replied.
“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 discovered on a mid-November night was a treasure for Russian-born NHLers seeking an authentic taste of home.
Kaprizov brought Middleton and captain Jared Spurgeon to Mari Vanna.
The restaurant is located in a quiet area of 20th Street in Manhattan. From the outside it looks like an apartment. You could easily walk past the green-lined windows and entryway with “Mari Vanna” written on a faded white awning above. But upon entering 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 the United States. So is the decor. There are old Russian books, lamps, dolls, photos in gold frames, teacups and chessboards. The white tablecloths and floral china look 1970s under the dim light. Russian cartoons play on a flat-screen TV.
“It’s like your grandmother’s house,” Lightning defenseman Mikhail Sergachev says. “Like being in Moscow again.”
“You can dive into your childhood,” says Jets center Vladislav Namestnikov.
“It’s about home cooking,” says Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky.
Mari Vanna also has an office 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, opened about 15 years ago, has the personal touch of a bucolic, family-run spot. Namestnikov said that “regulars,” at least before COVID-19, were given a key, with a matryoshka doll attached, so they could come in on “free” evenings or for private parties.
The head chef will come out and greet NHLers like Sergachev, Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy, hugging them. There are signed plaques hanging on the wall of celebrities (like Sarah Jessica Parker), as well as their highest-profile hockey stars, from Kucherov to Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin. On the November night Kaprizov brought Spurgeon and Middleton, there was a table full of Detroit Red Wings.
“You have to check it out,” Sergachev said.
So, on a recent trip to New York, I did just that.
Sergachev was a rookie with the Lightning in the 2018-19 season when he got his first experience with Mari Vanna.
Teammates Kucherov, Vasilevskiy and Namestnikov had already been there and wanted to introduce him. They met the owner, the head chef, who Sergachev said looked and acted like their grandmother. He hugged them, brought them some off-menu options. He couldn’t help but notice the antique furniture, the magazines, the worn white wallpaper, on which were the signatures of previous guests.
“Every year I go back to Russia to my grandmother’s house, and it’s a little similar,” Sergachev said. “There is a large Russian community in New York and it feels like home. Everyone speaks Russian. You don’t feel homesick because you can just 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 ravioli are a must, as are the salads, with Sergachev preferring the “Herring under the fur” one. When it’s not the night before a game, the Lightning group typically pairs with a flight of shots of infused vodka, as you can choose from a wide range of flavors, from cranberry and horseradish to cucumber and dill.
“Kirill said the correct way to prepare a Russian dinner is to drink those shots,” Middleton said, laughing. “We didn’t do it that night.”
Kaprizov told his teammates that the mid-November trip was his first time in Mari Vanna, even though he had been to the Russian Tea Room in town before. Kaprizov likes to make his own Russian food, usually ravioli. “My mother made me a lot, we just froze,” he said. “And you cook them whenever you want. You can eat them for breakfast, lunch, whatever.
Middleton told Mari Vanna, he and Spurgeon simply handed over the menu and let Kaprizov show them the way, from borscht to ravioli to after-dinner drinks. The best part? Kaprizov also withdrew the bill.
“I had no idea what Russian food was like before,” Middleton said. “But it’s very similar to farmer’s food. Heavy and thick, soup and potatoes. It was a really fun experience. I went to put on a couple of kilos of potatoes. When we were leaving, things started to get turbulent and a band started to form. It would have been nice if we had a free day the next day to hang out together all night. They said that Sunday and Monday are the most Russian nights when Russians go there to party and hang out.
“I’m sure it won’t be the last time I do something like this.”
On the same night in mid-November that Kaprizov hosted his teammates at Mari Vanna, I tried it myself.
Armed with advice from several Russian players, I wanted to try everything. I invited a friend, Kieran, a Londoner now living on Long Island, to join. The bar was busy while we waited for our table. Usually there is Russian music in the background, but this evening there was a three-piece jazz band. They were hidden in a corner near the bathroom, with Russian cartoons playing on the TV behind them and old framed photos hanging on the wall. Sydney Fay played acoustic guitar, with her sound giving off Norah Jones vibes.
I never thought I’d hear “Only You” while eating borscht, so I crossed it off my bucket list.
We were seated at a table in the front, where you could see the lights hanging 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 plate of chicken livers, with the spread on toast. The borscht, beetroot mixed with beef, was as advertised. This is the kind of place where players say they treat it like a tapas place, splitting a bunch of starters and entrees. The dumplings 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 partook in the infused vodka shots (a flight of five for $50). It was an eclectic mix of cranberry, apricot and horseradish flavors.
“They are not that strong,” Sergachev told me. “So do not worry.”
Russian players typically bring teammates with them to introduce them to their culture. Sergachev, Kucherov and Vasilevskiy took Pat Maroon and Alex Killorn to Mari Vanna in Washington, D.C. “Everything was great there,” Maroon said. “Never been to such a place.”
Other teammates don’t always have the same reaction. “I was in New York and Kevin Hayes came with me,” recalls Namestnikov. “I don’t think he liked him very much: he made a strange face. “Some like it, some don’t.”
Sometimes players are asked to sign plates, which are posted 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 was presented in a blue, Russian-designed purse), the hostess approached to ask another question.
“Would you like some shots, guys?”
(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic. Photo: Alex Ovechkin by Michael Mooney / Getty Images; Kirill Kaprizov by Bruce Bennett / Getty Images; restaurant photo by Joe Smith / The Athletic)