Category Archives: Fooooood &drink

A conversation with a restaurant manager in L’viv

I love new businesses and the energy of entrepreneurs. It’s exhilarating, and I’ve only been able to appreciate it since fairly recently — since deprogramming myself from all the socialist garbage I picked up in school.

Before I ever met this young manager, I was already a great appreciator of her restaurant. It was clean, simple, fun, tasty, innovative, inexpensive and had great customer service. I’m not going to name it because I want everything to remain anonymous.

It was fun listening to the back story over beers:

The owners are two guys both of whose fathers are politicians. (This part of the story is depressing to me. I want at least some sectors of the economy to be opened to the aristocratic competition of the free market: may the best restauranteur win.) So they probably have some cover from L’viv’s famously predatory bureaucrats and tax collectors. Typical of the political class, they do little work beyond making harsh demands on their underlings.

I think the reason I heard so much of the story was because this young lady suffered from months of pent-up frustration.

She unleashed a flood of evidence, making the case for her deserving better.

I agree with her, of course, but mostly I felt impressed and delighted to see her competence and the run-away success of a fairly new restaurant.

She told me about waking up at 6am and scouring supermarkets because she realized they were out of lettuce, about teaching employees to smile and greet customers, about choosing the design for the restaurant, about the amazingly small initial investment (less than $30k!), about their stunning profitability, about preparing documents, about late night phone calls from the owners, about begging for vacation time, about her salary (about $500 a month), about doing what I had assumed was lawyer-work — preparing franchising documents, about miraculously locating Ukrainian suppliers for things previously shipped from America, about receiving no appreciation, about her desire to switch to a government job (I hope she fails).

Of course there was some frustration, but this isn’t a sad story. It’s a glorious one. For her talents, dedication, and knowledge, I think she’ll eventually earn the money she deserves.

It’s also the story of entrepreneurial success. Yes, from her perspective, the owners have flaws, we may feel they don’t deserve their success, but L’viv’s restaurant business is at least a partially free market. I know an American who doesn’t even speak English whose year-old restaurant is fast becoming a L’viv icon (TexMexBBQ). He succeeded presumably without a relative in politics.

So their flaws aside, these two young men took a risk and are delivering fantastic food and service to thousands of Ukrainians and tourists.

God bless capitalism. May it not perish from the Earth.

Half-joking, I asked whether she’d be able to turn $20,000 into $40,000 in a year. She didn’t understand the question. I repeated: “If I give you $20,000, can you turn it into $40,000 in a year.” She was full of doubts and questions and qualifications. It’s clear that a personality capable of stunning coordination and discipline and management isn’t always a personality capable of taking a large sum of money, choosing a direction and saying to other people “follow me.” She needed the two owners (at least initially) just as much as they need her.

The Vibrancy of Kyiv, every time I visit

Of course political and financial capitals benefit economically at the expense of the rest of the country, but nevertheless, I’m always impressed and excited when I visit Kyiv — the same can be said of New York City.

Both are great places to visit.

I saw new restaurants and was particularly surprised to see an organic place and a raw-foods place. I was not surprised by the peculiar mixing of styles — Mex Tex Italiano

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Of course, where there are abandoned properties literally a few hundred meters from Maidan, Kyiv’s central square, you know this isn’t a normal free market:

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As on most weekends, they close the Khreshchatyk, the main street that runs past Maidan. It looked like some sports celebration. There were two girls on equestrian styled horses, gymnasts jumping on trampolines, wrestling matching, little arena-style football games, relay races, tug-of-war and more.

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Olympic events invoke two of the things politicians love most: flag waving and government-funded infrastructure projects.

The Strangest Restaurant Experience of my Life

There’s a cafeteria in a factory that working at probably 15% capacity — a deteriorating shadow of Soviet times. It’s open to the public too, but it seems not many people know about it.

Here’s how you get there. First, find this place:

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Walk through the lot and around this building:

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Then through this alley:

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Across this other lot (there’s a dotted line to help):

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Around the corner, passing the rusting metal tank:

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Along the back side of this building:

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Through this door. Its being already open made the whole trip that much more welcoming. :)

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Up these stairs:

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Across this large, empty ballroom and into the door in the door in the corner:

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Down the hall (the light at the end of this corridor was my second clue after the open door that they were open for business):

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And there you can buy all this food for about $2.35:

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It was delicious! And probably the strangest restaurant experience of my life.

L’viv Restaurants Have the Funniest Bathrooms in the World

As part of my ongoing coverage of Ukrainian toilets, I want to share with you how much I enjoy the bathrooms in L’viv’s restaurants.

The “Restaurant on the Ridge” has the door to the bathroom disguised as a big wardrobe.

The “House of Legends” has a television inconspicuously fixed to the inside of the bathroom door. There’s some trigger which causes it to suddenly turn on — usually while you’re doing your business. On the screen, two men slide open a window, laugh drunkenly, and ask you to hurry up because other people are waiting. It was quite startling and funny on my first visit.

Here’s another example:

Lviv Delpesto restaurant bathroom.  Window instead of mirror.

In the bathroom of the Italian restaurant Delpesto, there is a window instead of a mirror, and everything is built identically to look like a reflection. They also keep a turtle named “Love.”

My New Favorite Steak Place in L’viv

Fortunately, I found “The Гриль” (The Grill). It exemplifies kitsch: the host’s cowboy hat, vest, dungarees and boots, the rough, wooden interior, the map of the South-Western US painted onto the wall, leather-bound menus. What adds to the fun is the typical confused mixing of American styles and stereo types. The tables are covered with 50’s diner-style table clothes with checker patters and pictures of good, simple Americana foods like cherry pie, hamburgers and French fries.

It gets even stranger. For some reason, Ukrainian restaurants almost all serve pizza, coffee and sushi. You know you’re in a fancy restaurant when the menu does NOT include sushi. The Grill doesn’t pass this test, but I don’t care. The steaks are amazing!

The sushi section of The Grill’s leather-bound menus:
Roman in Ukraine

Roman in Ukraine

The best local dive in Ukraine

Cafe Zupynka Holy Moley! This famous restaurant is found in Western Ukraine’s roadside village of Ozerna. Every trucker knows it. It’s buffet style and, as one would expect, contactly packed. It’s also some of the best food I’ve ever tasted. I’m told the restaurant is owned by a farmer. The food goes straight from field to your plate. Fantastic!

The portions are huge.

I had borshch and salo (pig fat). That’s right. Salo. For my American friends: imagine the white fat on the edge of your bacon. Now imagine it without the bacon. By itself. Cold. With piece of raw garlic beside it, and a sprinkle of paprika.

I’ve tried salo many times. Usually . . . meh. But on two occasions, including today’s . . . Wow. My paleo digestive system is still tingling, six hours later. I feel like a machine that’s finally been oiled. I can’t stop imagining the delicious taste, the texture. I’m going to dream about that salo.

I want to go back there to have it again, though I’ll also be tempted by the stakes and cutlets, fresh salads and plates overflowing with homemade pastries.

This is the type of food that makes you happy to be alive!

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention. The cost of my meal, plus that of my friend’s: about $3.50.

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In celebration of salo:

Arseniiivski Kvas

I love this stuff.

Live Arseniivski Kvas

What is Kvas? Wikipedia: “Kvass is a fermented beverage made from black or regular rye bread. The colour of the bread used contributes to the colour of the resulting drink. It is classified as a non-alcoholic drink by Russian standards, as the alcohol content from fermentation is typically less than 1.2%. Overall, the alcohol content is low (0.05% – 1.0%). It is often flavoured with fruits or herbs such as strawberries, raisins or mint. Kvass is also used for preparing a cold summertime soup called okroshka.

It is popular in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and other Eastern and Central European countries as well as in former Soviet states, such as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, where one can see many kvass vendors in the streets.”

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This brand is my favorite by far. Their website.

Grocery Price Comparison

broccoli, bread, chicken in Ukraine

.49 kg Broccoli = 18.61 UAH
———> 37.98 UAH/Kg ———-> $2.16 / lb (In the US it’s about $1.50)

.44 kg Chicken Drumsticks(4) = 22.98 UAH
———-> 52.22 UAH/Kg ———-> $2.97 / lb (In the US it’s about $2.50 — right?)

Loaf of bread (medium quality) = 12 UAH
———-> $1.50 (In the US it’s about $2.50)

Please post if I didn’t get the US prices right. The verdict is:

Imported produce: MUCH more expensive
Chicken: about the same
Bread: cheaper

Cafe Cafe during a storm

A violent thunderstorm blew into L’viv with buckets of water falling from the sky, blue flashes of lightning, and instant, ear-splitting thunder.

I was in the center, returning from a purchase of train tickets. The lines were long and I had been thinking angry thoughts about gross inefficiency and the life-times Ukrainians spend waiting in lines or getting things stamped — the country’s two main pastimes.

The restaurants in the center all filled instantly with Ukrainians and tourists. A small crowd did remain outside under their umbrellas watching musicians set up on a stage in Rynok square.

People waited under awnings and in doorways for the rain to pass. The rain was so fierce, that even people eating under the large canopies many restaurants set up in the streets opened their umbrellas against the splash and wind.

After darting between various cafes, I feel fortunate to have gotten the last table at one of my favorite places, Cafe Cafe, which probably has the best casual combination of good service and reliable wifi in L’viv.

Show tunes are playing. I was served instantly and ordered pasta and tea. My jeans and shirt are drying. The rain seems to be subsiding already, and the thunder more distant.