WASHINGTON – The athletes are in their final hours of preparation before the competition begins in the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia.
And in Mari Vanna’s small kitchen in Northwest, D.C., chefs and staff are in their final hours of preparation, as well. They’re working to bring the traditional tastes of one of Russia’s southwestern cities to the plates of Washingtonians.
Anna Kurman, manager at Mari Vanna, explains Sochi’s cuisine is unique from other Russian regions, since it draws a lot of influence from its neighbor, Georgia.
To honor Sochi’s multicultural fare, the Connecticut Avenue restaurant will add three new dishes to its menu for the duration of the Olympics, including solyanka soup, sish kabob and khachapuri.
Kurman and Mari Vanna Brand Chef Alexander Lokhin sat down with WTOP to explain these dishes, and other staples in Russian cuisine.
This slightly spicy soup, filled with meat and chopped vegetables, is a staple in Sochi.
“It’s a traditional winter Russian soup … People eat it [year round], but it’s most popular in the wintertime,” Kurman says.
The soup’s variety of vegetables — such as chopped olives and pickles — and smoked meats — such as sausage and pork — set it apart from standard American soups and stews.
Kurman says those olives and pickles do more than give the soup a boost in flavor. They possess somewhat of a healing power, if you will.
“When you have a hangover, it helps you a lot. Probably because of the pickles there,” she says.
In a country known for its vodka, anything that helps along a hangover comes in handy.
Khachapuri is technically a Georgian cheese bread, but due to Sochi’s proximity to Georgia, variations of this traditional bread are enjoyed throughout the region.
Lokhin, who worked with D.C. Executive Chef Azmat Zhanizakov on the Sochi-inspired dishes, explains the bread being served contains a combination of feta cheese, cream cheese and mozzarella cheese.
The cheeses are enclosed in a pastry-type dough, which is baked until everything is melted.
Kurman puts this dish in the simplest of terms: “It’s beef, on a stick, with fresh vegetables.”
Variations of kabobs are enjoyed all over the world — from Greece, to India. And in Sochi, a traditional kabob is a staple.
Lokhin says the one on Mari Vanna’s menu will have marinated lamb and will be served with fresh vegetables and two kinds of dipping sauces.
A Russian meal would not be complete without a glass of vodka to wash down the flavors of the region — and Mari Vanna currently has 17 different types of house-infused vodkas from which to choose.
“Some of them [are] sweet, like strawberry and pineapple. But some of them are not, like horseradish, cucumber-dill,” Kurman says.
New to flavored vodkas? Kurman recommends the restaurant’s most popular varieties: horseradish, cucumber-dill and black current.
Another must-have at a Russian dinner table is sour cream. Kurman says it is used on almost every dish, whether savory or sweet.
“There’s no reason, we just love to put sour cream [on everything],” she says.
And think twice before you butter your bread while dining on Russian food. Kurman says bread is traditionally dipped in sunflower oil, and sometimes eaten with salt and sliced radishes.
Ready to celebrate Sochi with food and drink? Mari Vanna will host an Olympic kick-off party on Friday, Feb 7.
From 6-9 p.m., guests can enjoy a complimentary shot of vodka and free tastings of pirozhki, a perogi-like dish.
“We have three different kinds, with meat, with egg and onion, and with cabbage. It’s very popular here,” Kurman says.
The Olympics will also be aired on the restaurant’s TVs.