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Kyiv Journal: A Ukrainian Chef's Quest To Reinvent His Country's Cuisine

A sampling of the "lolli-frogs" at Kyiv's Bessarabia restaurant
A sampling of the "lolli-frogs" at Kyiv's Bessarabia restaurant

KYIV -- "Try the Black Sea shrimp tartare," Dima Borysov entreats as he slides a bowl of the shelled crustaceans toward me.

I'm usually wary of eating seafood in Ukraine, where much of what is served by restaurants is days old and imported from god-knows-where or else fished from contaminated local lakes and rivers. But Borysov, one of Ukraine's premier chefs and restaurateurs, insists this experience will be different.

We are sitting in Bessarabia, not the southwestern seaside region of Ukraine but Borysov's new restaurant of the same name in central Kyiv that features an array of products sourced from the area. The shrimp, a fingernail-size species Borysov says is available only in Bessarabia and which now rests in front of me, dressed in a tomato-and-mango sauce, are, as promised, pleasantly delicate and sweet.

That I'm eating this in Kyiv seems remarkable. What passed for fun, affordable dining out as recently as five years ago were dual Italian-Japanese restaurants with names like Mafia, where undercooked pasta carbonara would be served beside rubbery sushi rolls.

Don't get me wrong, Ukraine has always had high-end dining establishments. But many of them lack distinct character, original offerings, and decent food -- and with prices closer to those in Moscow or London, they cater predominately to the country's elite.

Ukrainian cuisine, or at least what most think of it -- famously stodgy, with a heavy amount of potatoes, dough, beetroots, and sour cream, often topped with copious amounts of dill -- remained confined to household kitchens, pubs, and cheap, cafeteria-style chain diners. The idea that it could feature on the menus of swankier cafes and restaurants seemed out of the question.

But over the past three years -- leavened by a wave of patriotism stemming from the 2014 Euromaidan unrest that swept a pro-Western government into power, Russia's annexation of Crimea, and the war against Russia-backed insurgents in eastern Ukraine that has largely united Ukrainians like never before in its independent history -- Ukrainian cuisine, with a focus on locally sourced products, has come to the fore.

The trend places a high value on locally sourced ingredients in preparing meals.
The trend places a high value on locally sourced ingredients in preparing meals.

More Than Mere Circumstance

At least one of the trend's leaders is Borysov, who admits it's somewhat ironic that Ukraine has the recent turmoil to thank, at least in part, for the burgeoning movement and the success of his dozen restaurants -- all of which are located in Kyiv.

But it would be unfair to say that this success was born only of circumstance. Borysov's grand plan to reinvent Ukrainian cuisine can be traced to his return to Kyiv in 2010, following years of lengthy visits to Italy and Spain, as well as New York and London, where he visited some of the best-rated kitchens in the world.

As Borysov, who says he has always been patriotic, stewed over what to do back home, he remembered something that had struck him on his adventures: "I asked myself, 'Why do Spanish people dine at Spanish restaurants, Italian people dine at Italian restaurants, but Ukrainians don't go to Ukrainian restaurants?'"

Part of the reason, he says, is that "the Soviet Union destroyed our national food. They reduced food to sustenance instead of an experience and culture."

Opening the Ukrainian-themed gastropub Barsuk that year was his first attempt at reintroducing national cuisine. However, located in Kyiv's wealthier Pechersk neighborhood, surrounded by more exotic dining experiences, it was slow to take off.

But a second attempt a year and a half later would prove to be more successful.

Customers shop for meat products at the Bessarabsky market in central Kyiv.
Customers shop for meat products at the Bessarabsky market in central Kyiv.

Ukrainian With A Twist

Kanapa is a fine-dining establishment located on Kyiv's historic Andriyivskyy Descent that Borysov says does "Ukrainian cuisine, but with a twist." Its signature dish is a hearty borscht served in a hollowed-out cabbage, but perhaps its most popular menu item is the black "varenyky," or dumplings filled with smoked pork fat and topped with herring caviar.

But it took time to catch on.

Ukrainians, he says, "advised foreigners to visit Kanapa to get a taste of Ukrainian food. But they didn't eat there themselves."

Most Ukrainian guests, he adds, "made jokes" about the food "or they found the modern takes on Ukrainian food offensive or strange."

Dima Borysov poses inside his Kanapa restaurant in Kyiv.
Dima Borysov poses inside his Kanapa restaurant in Kyiv.

Then came Euromaidan, Russia's military response to the more Western-oriented political leadership in Kyiv, and a wave of Ukrainian national pride. Kanapa's reservation book filled up as Ukrainians filed in. Since then, Borysov has opened a handful of other restaurants, each with its own distinct style and menu, but all Ukraine-focused in one way or another.

Besides Bessarabia and Kanapa, there's the meat-centric Vatra, which boasts aged and smoked Ukrainian meats as well as more than a dozen aged local cheeses; and the swanky Chicken Kyiv, a bistro in 1920s Art Deco style that houses a speakeasy in its basement that serves quirky cocktails with local fruit and herbs; along with other themed eateries.

But Borysov's proudest achievement is Ostannya Barikada, or OB for short, which translates from Ukrainian as Last Barricade. It is perhaps the best example of Borysov's love of food partnered with his eccentric style.

Located directly beneath Kyiv's Independence Square -- ground zero for major protests since the dying days of the Soviet Union -- diners are granted entrance after giving a password (hint: It's a line from a poem by Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko about winning your battles) and pushing through an "iron" wall adorned with 70 outstretched hands symbolizing the seven decades Ukraine spent under Soviet control. Inside, memorabilia from the 1990 student-led demonstrations, the 2004 Orange Revolution, and 2013-14 Euromaidan protests adorn the walls.

If kitschy for some, OB's broad and adventurous menu makes up for it. Each and every food product is locally sourced, down to the butter. And that includes the alcohol.

On a recent trip, I found the fried veal brains to be surprisingly melt-in-my-mouth good. But it was the Perch "Chicken" Kyiv -- a take on the famous original, with a fin jutting out instead of a bone -- that left a real impression.

Others Having Success, Too

Olesia Chornaya, head of Le Silpo and restaurant projects at the Fozzy Group, Ukraine's largest supermarket and retail food operator, says Borysov doesn't deserve all the credit for popularizing Ukrainian cuisine. But she affords him some credit for defining a successful "niche."

Chornaya tells me there has been a slow-burning movement toward locally sourced and traditional food at mid- to high-end restaurants under way for a while that caught fire following the revolution.

"It's blossoming at the moment, and this is just the beginning," she says. The trend is also reflected in Fozzy Group's businesses, Chornaya says, and in others' too. In western Lviv, for instance, the !Fest holding company, a project of three Ukrainian men, has enjoyed success -- and dealt with some controversy -- with its concept restaurants that highlight the region's history through food and decor.

The Next Big Food Trend?

At Bessarabia, as I scrape my plate for the last of the shrimp, Borysov slides in front of me plates of trout ceviche (marinated in fresh citrus, with mango sauce, tomatoes, peppers, and cilantro), shrimp tartare (with sauce from red tomatoes and mangoes), and what he calls lolli-frogs (fried frog legs with citrus-honey sauce). As I dig in, he makes a bold prediction: Ukrainian cuisine will follow Georgian cuisine in becoming the next hot global food trend.

In an attempt to fulfill the prophesy, Borysov says he's planning to open a Kanapa restaurant soon in Warsaw, Poland.

"Hopefully it will lead to opening a restaurant in London," he adds.

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