Wild defenseman Jake Middleton was at the rink one day in November and Russian superstar Kirill Kaprizov surprised him with a question.
“You ever have Russian food?” Kaprizov asked.
“No,” Middleton replied.
“You want to go in New York?” Kaprizov said.
“Absolutely,” Middleton said.
Middleton, 27, is from small-town Alberta and had no idea what to expect. He thought maybe it’d be something extravagant, perhaps even some raw fish dishes. What Middleton was introduced to on a mid-November night was a treasure trove for Russian-born NHLers looking for an authentic taste of home.
Kaprizov brought Middleton and captain Jared Spurgeon to Mari Vanna.
The restaurant is nestled in a quiet part of 20th Street in Manhattan. From the outside, it looks like an apartment. You could easily walk past the green-bordered windows and entrance with “Mari Vanna” written on a faded white curtain above it. But walk inside and you’re transported thousands of miles away and decades back in time. The menu, from the borscht to the cured herring, is cooked and served by Russian staff. It’s as authentic as NHL players have found in the States. So is the decor. There are old Russian books, lamps, dolls, gold-framed photos, tea cups and chessboards. The white tablecloths and floral china look like they’re from the 1970s under the dim light. Russian cartoons play from a flatscreen TV.
“It’s like your grandmother’s house,” says Lightning defenseman Mikhail Sergachev. “Like being back in Moscow.”
“You can dive back into your childhood,” Jets center Vladislav Namestnikov says.
“It’s having your home cuisine,” Panthers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky says.
Mari Vanna also has a location in Washington, D.C., and two in Russia. It’s owned by the Ginza Project, which owns 70 restaurants in St. Petersburg and Moscow. This New York location, which opened around 15 years ago, has the personal touches of a hole-in-the-wall, family-owned spot. Namestnikov said “regulars,” at least before COVID-19, were given a key, with a Matryoshka doll attached, so they could get in on “off” nights or for private parties.
The head chef will come out and greet NHLers like Sergachev, Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy, giving them a hug. There are signed plates hanging on the wall of celebrities (like Sarah Jessica Parker), as well as their most high-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’ve got to check it out,” Sergachev said.
So on a recent trip to New York, I did just that. Nikita Kucherov’s signed plate (right) adorns the wall of similarly signed plates at Mari Vanna in New York. (Joe Smith / The Athletic)Sergachev was a rookie with the Lightning back in the 2018-19 when he had his first Mari Vanna experience.
Teammates Kucherov, Vasilevskiy and Namestnikov had been there before, and wanted to introduce him to it. They met the owner, the head chef, whom Sergachev said looked, and acted, like their grandmother. She gave them an embrace, brought them some off-menu options. He couldn’t help but notice the antique furniture, the magazines, the raggedy, white wallpaper, which had signatures from previous guests.
“Every year I go back to Russia and my grandmother’s house, and it’s kind of similar,” Sergachev said. “There’s a big Russian community in New York, and it feels like back home. Everyone speaks Russian. You don’t get homesick because … (The rest of the content is not provided)
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